Pricewatch: Readers’ complaints about Aer Lingus are flying in
When the airline is good, it is very good, but when things go wrong . . . that’s another story
'Our flight was cancelled without warning a few moments before boarding was due to start.' Photograph: iStock
Flying planes is a complex business and requires companies to keep – if you will forgive us the obvious joke – loads of balls in the air at the same time.
Staff and schedules have to be organised, planes have to be maintained, passengers (who are sometimes grumpy and stressed) have to be taken care of and long metal tubes full of highly flammable liquids have to be kept tens of thousands of metres in the sky and steered clear of other long metal tubes full of highly flammable liquids which are similarly criss-crossing the planet at ferocious speeds.
It is a business that Aer Lingus does very well, by and large. In Pricewatch’s experience its staff are pleasant and professional, bags rarely go missing and planes take off and come home on time. But, in our experience, the measure of a company is best taken not when things are going to plan but when they are not. It is always more interesting to us how a company handles a bad situation than how it handles a good one.
We have received a huge volume of complaints about Aer Lingus in recent weeks – including some which came after we invited readers to send in horror stories. As you read through the small selection we are able to feature here, you will see a pattern emerging which, we think, is disturbing.
Too often the company seems to ignore passenger queries and requests for refunds, and people are left hanging for weeks – and sometimes years. We asked Aer Lingus if it could shed some light – in a general way – on what was happening.
In response to our queries an Aer Lingus spokeswoman said the airline was “aware that some using our guest relations channels have not had their queries handled in a timely manner”.
However she, at least in part, sidestepped responsibility saying it was “due to Aer Lingus – like all European airlines – experiencing a significant uplift in flight disruption in recent times”. She also suggested that when it comes to customer complaints, it does better than its peers and its satisfaction levels are “industry leading”.
She said this year “has seen unprecedented disruption for all airlines across Europe, caused primarily by issues with the air traffic control system. Extreme weather events in Europe and in the USA also had a negative impact on operations.” She said the effect of these disruptions was “a considerable increase in the number of guest issues requiring processing by all airlines.”
She pointed out that the airline carries more than 12 million guests “and no matter how hard we strive we understand – as do all companies in the hospitality sector – there are some guests we will disappoint”. She said the airline was “able to benchmark levels of complaint and satisfaction across the industry and is able to confirm that its levels of complaint are lower than industry norms and its level of satisfaction, based on Net Promoter Scores, is industry-leading.”
She said it had sought ways to cope with the increase in flight disruption effects through major investments, “both in new teams in the USA, who have reduced EU261 backlogs by 50 per cent in the past four weeks; and through investment in technological infrastructure such as automated refunds, which are due to come on-line in 2019.”
She concluded by saying Aer Lingus apologised “to any guest with an outstanding complaint. Aer Lingus expects to be back to normal levels of service within six weeks.”
It has also resolved all the queries highlighted on this page, apologised where necessary and processed refunds and compensation if it was due.
Aidan Campion wrote to us to say he was in a situation which he described as “very frustrating, to put it mildly”. He was due to fly to Frankfurt on March 19th and was at the airport, checked in and past security, when his flight was cancelled about 40 minutes before departure. “The reason given on the screen was ‘operational reasons’ and the Aer Lingus desk had no further information,” he wrote.
Later that evening, he called Aer Lingus Guest Relations and submitted a request through its website to claim a refund of the cost of the flight and the compensation payable under EU Regulation 261/2004 of €250.
“Over the course of the last five months, I have phoned Guest Relations four or five times, each time asking for an update in relation to the case and when the compensation would be paid. Although the cost of the flight was finally refunded in early May, there is still no sign of the compensation payment,” he says.
“Each time I call, the representative in the customer service centre says that they have no record of the compensation request, only the refund of the cost, and that they will “add it” to the case reference. This is despite the fact that I specifically selected “EU Regulation 261 compensation” as the drop-down menu option when submitting the request on March 19th.”
He says that the call centre appears to be based in the US, and “they say that they have ‘never heard’ of EU compensation”. After reading a recent Pricewatch article, Campion used Twitter to send a tweet as well as a direct message to Aer Lingus, quoting the case reference and explaining the background. “One week later, and no acknowledgment or response received. It is most frustrating and time-consuming.”
Shelia Ebbs has been waiting more than two years to hear back from the airline in connection with an issue she had. She was booked to fly with Aer Lingus from Minneapolis to Chicago and then on to Dublin, but the stopover in Chicago gave her little over an hour to make her flight to Dublin.
This was despite the fact that she had previously received an email from the airline which said that as a result of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) capacity at Chicago O’Hare airport, she was likely to “experience longer than normal security queues”. The mail from Aer Lingus said that in order to “ensure you get to your gate on time, we recommend Aer Lingus guests arrive to the airport in good time to allow for the longer queue times – we would suggest arriving 3.5 hours before your flight”.
So after she got the email, she “attempted on many occasions to contact Aer Lingus by phone, but never made contact, in spite of running up a large phone bill, while listening to recorded messages”.
Eventually she resolved the problem “by turning up early to Minneapolis and securing an earlier flight to Chicago, thanks to United Airlines. Luckily, we were easily able to do this as we were staying nearby with family. On our return to Dublin, I emailed Aer Lingus to outline our difficulties.” Apart from a response saying her concerns had been noted and would be dealt with in due course, she “never heard another word”. She says she is “very disappointed to be still awaiting a reply after two years and three months”.
Last May Kieran Harkin and his wife were in the departure lounge in Dublin airport bound for Brussels when notices for flight delays were posted, after which a “flight cancelled” notice was posted. “We received a text notification also and were advised to phone or go online,” he says.
“When we received no reply we made our way to Aer Lingus customer service. It was now 8.30pm and there was a queue of approximately 50 people. An Aer Lingus person told us that the desk would be closed at 9pm and that we should phone the Aer Lingus desk either from a hotel – which was offered free – or from home.”
The couple waited in the queue and at about 9.15pm the lights were turned off at the desk and all three staff left. “There were by now approximately 100 distressed and very angry people waiting. The supervisor apologised and advised everyone to leave and phone,” she says.
“She was unable to offer any advice re travel options the next day but said that everyone would be taken to their destination – even if it was by bus. She was asked to put that in writing but refused. Many Irish people in the queue apologised to overseas visitors and expressed shame at the shabby treatment we were all receiving from our national airline.”
We were unable to travel and it ruined a family reunion weekend
The passengers were told they should return at 4.30am when it would be possible to re-book. “A number of disgruntled customers continued to remonstrate with the supervisor until four fully kitted-out security staff arrived. This really seemed extremely offensive and I asked if security were invited over to deal with the angry customers. I was told that they were simply on a routine visit – but this did not seem credible. Security presence did, however, ensure that all customers left.
He and his wife then tried phoning again but gave up after 90 minutes. “We tried to re-book our flights online but there was nothing available. We were unable to travel and it ruined a family reunion weekend. While at least we had a home to go to, there were, however, many other families with both children and elderly who were clearly distraught at being abandoned with no information or assistance other than the offer of a Dublin hotel room.”
The couple logged a complaint to Aer Lingus customer service the following day. “We received an acknowledgment but no reply. When we received no reply after 30 days we phoned Guest Relations and were told our complaint was on file and would be dealt with in due course. A very sympathetic staff member told us that they were about three months behind in responding to complaints. When we heard nothing else after a few days we wrote to the aviation regulator. We received an automated acknowledgment to the effect that our complaint was logged and that they would reply as soon as possible – we have yet to receive a reply.”
He concludes by saying that he supposes they will have their “claim dealt with in due course, but do hope that you have some success in investigating how customer service can be so appalling at our national airline”.
Berlin wall of silence
Aongus Murtagh’s flight from Tegel airport in Berlin to Dublin was cancelled on July 20th “without warning a few moments before boarding was due to start”, he says. “No personnel were available to clarify the situation, and confusion reigned. While hotel vouchers were handed out at a help counter, nobody there could advise us on our next steps.”
He got a mail which suggested he cancel or re-book or apply for a refund online or alternatively contact its call centre.
“I was travelling with my 14-year-old son, and he did not want to stay in a hotel, so we stayed with friends. When I finally got through to the Aer Lingus helpdesk in Dublin the next morning (it is not open 24 hours as claimed – I tried ringing all night), I was offered a flight three days later. This meant we lost the first three days of our summer holiday.”
He held on to receipts for food and taxis and the rest for those three days. “After my holiday, I duly printed up the claims form on the Aer Lingus website, and posted it to company headquarters along with the receipts.
I rang the hotline on several occasions and was promised that my claim would be prioritised
He then got a letter of acknowledgement. One line leaped out at him: “Please understand that we are currently in receipt of a large volume of correspondence in our office. We are endeavouring to respond to each one as quickly as possible; however, we would appreciate your patience at this time.”
As other readers noted, it also said: “We would request that you do not resend any correspondence which has already been acknowledged, as this often leads to duplication and, in some cases, delays in responding to claims.” It concluded by thanking him for his letter and expressing appreciation for his “patience until we contact you once again”.
Since then he has heard “absolutely nothing. I rang the hotline on several occasions and was promised that my claim would be prioritised. This clearly has not happened. I have tried to lodge a claim online at the small claims court in Swords, Dublin, but they tell me they do not take on claims for “non-co-operation”. A lawyer I approached was not interested in taking on the case either.”
He says his next step “is to try with one of the flight compensation websites, but it would be great if this could just be sorted out, and the compensation I am legally entitled to per EU law paid without further delays. The phone calls to Aer Lingus were incredibly frustrating: I suspected all along that they were just waiting for me give up on a lost cause. I am grateful to you and The Irish Times for shining a spotlight on this cynical way of dealing with customers.”
Gatwick to Heathrow
A reader called Fintan, his wife and daughter were left stranded in Gatwick on August 20th, 2017, after their flight home to Dublin was cancelled an hour before departure due to technical reasons.
“There was general mayhem at the enquiry desk and the gentleman from Menzies had no idea what was going on,” he says. “We were eventually led, as a group, from the departures lounge to the check-in area where two Menzies staff told us that we had to re-book ourselves. They too had no idea what was happening and were totally undrilled in dealing with this eventuality, and with accessing hotel accommodation.”
Aer Lingus said that they had no knowledge of us being in a hotel in Heathrow
The family stood in a long queue for several hours. “I re-booked, as advised, using the website and was charged seat booking fees for the three of us! At about 3am we were informed that hotel accommodation had been found. We received no offer of refreshments or food during this time. We were led outside the terminal to wait for a taxi to take us to a hotel in . . . Heathrow,” he says.
He says that before departing the terminal, “and when we arrived at the hotel”, he asked if they would be collected in time to be brought back for the re-booked Gatwick flight. That flight was scheduled to leave at 2.35pm on August 21st. “In the morning, we waited in reception and no taxi arrived. When I asked the hotel receptionist, she said she knew nothing of this and then called Aer Lingus who, in turn, said that they had no knowledge of us being in a hotel in Heathrow. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, a taxi was booked and we got back to Gatwick for the flight. This flight was delayed by about an hour.”
He wrote to Guest Relations and was assured that a member of its Guest Relations team would “review your request and personally reply to you within the next 30 business days. In the event you have not heard from us within that time, kindly reply to this email for an update on the status of your request. Please do not re-file another form via the web as this may cause a delay to our response.”
On November 1st he emailed again asking for an update, as he had not received a response. Again he was promised an update.
In December he got a mail which said: “I am very sorry for the delay in responding to you; however, I hope you will understand that we are currently in receipt of a large volume of correspondence to our office, and we are endeavouring to respond to each one as quickly as possible. Your patience is appreciated.”
He was promised that he would be reimbursed reasonable and necessary expenses and was told he wold be refunded a seating fee of €41.97. “I hope despite the difficulties encountered on this occasion, you will afford us the opportunity to welcome you on board our services for a more enjoyable experience in the future,” the mail continued. “Please do not reply directly to this email as it will delay handling of your case,” it added.
The seating fee was reimbursed but there was no mention of compensation. Fintan recently emailed them again. “I am awaiting their response and it is, perhaps, too early for external involvement,” he said.