Imagine this scenario: you are a doctor – a heart surgeon – who is away on a much needed vacation overseas. You booked your flight months in advance, followed all the rules, and after 2 weeks away, as you get ready to board your flight home, you are told, “Sorry, sir, but the flight is overbooked and there are no seats available for you. Not even in business class or first class.” Now imagine you are supposed to fly home on a Monday so that you can perform open heart surgery on Tuesday on a 6 year old child who, if she doesn’t have this surgery, will die. Instead, you are stuck in a foreign country, with no way of getting home.
I am not a doctor. Obviously. But the subtext of this scenario, getting bumped from a flight, happened to me recently. And according to the concierge at the Courtyard Marriott in Amsterdam, this happens at least 15 times a day.
My wife and I booked our flight to Italy on KLM, via Amsterdam. We were excited to fly the Royal Dutch Airline, as our last experience with them, two years ago, was a breeze. Not this time, unfortunately.
The way to Italy had its minor issues, but nothing that was to set off fireworks. However, the way home made me wonder how the airline industry as a whole, and KLM specifically, can operate the way it does currently.
Our flight path was supposed to be: Naples to Rome; Rome to Amsterdam; Amsterdam to NYC…first plane at 11am, second flight at 1:30, third flight at 5:45 (all local European time). First two flights, on AlItalia, had no issues. In fact, we had a row to ourselves from Rome to Amsterdam. There was a bit of plane traffic at the Rome airport, but we landed on time at Sciphol.
We arrive at the large, international hub and proceed to go through the necessary transfer process. In Naples, we were told since we were switching airlines, we’d have to print out boarding passes in Amsterdam. Fine. No problem. However, when we got to Schiphol, there was a problem with the first three machines. Of course, not a good omen. We booked to the transfer station to have a real life human being assist us, but when we printed out our reservation, we no longer had the seats we booked. We were on standby. I had a bad feeling about this.
At the gate, we were told KLM overbooked the flight. There were no business class or first class seats to bump up to; there were no economy seats. Nothing. After traveling for two weeks, and on planes all day, my fuse was short as I could not comprehend how this happens. I felt like Seinfeld in his classic episode where he reserves a car, and I wound up quoting him to the KLM attendant, who spoke fluent English, yet apparently didn’t understand the definition of “reservation.”
Jerry: I don’t understand, I made a reservation, do you have my reservation?
Agent: Yes, we do, unfortunately we ran out of cars.
Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That’s why you have the reservation.
Agent: I know why we have reservations.
Jerry: I don’t think you do. If you did, I’d have a car. See, you know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to *hold* the reservation and that’s really the most important part of the reservation, the holding. Anybody can just take them.
The attendant informed us that KLM overbooks most every flight because there are, typically, a small percentage of flyers that wind up missing or cancelling their flights. So instead of having empty seats, the company overbooks the flight. They don’t want to lose the $1,000+ ticket. There is some interesting math happening. But first, a side discussion of social media.
You ask, How does social media fit into this? Well, here you go: When we found out we were bumped off our flight, I did what I’ve been conditioned to do over the past several years: go to Twitter to report what’s happening (as you may or may not know, I am a habitual Twitter; yes, it’s a dirty habit, but I rather enjoy it). While I was away, I did not Tweet. I did check it sporadically, but just to keep up with the news (learned about Oslo, debt ceiling and Amy Winehouse via Twitter, as we didn’t really have any English-language stations at most of the places we stayed at – though we did watch the Women’s World Cup Final in Sinalunga on the Eurosports Network, though it had German telecasters.)
So I tweeted the following:
Which elicited this response from the KLM Twitter account:
It was a pointless tweet. Clearly, there’s nothing they can do, as I’m now stuck in Amsterdam. If the person behind the account could magically get me two seats on a plane to NYC this evening, then it’s worth tweeting that out. But, they cannot. What this shows is that many companies still have not figured out that social networks are not for pointless chatter like this. Just because you can respond to a customer’s complaint, doesn’t mean you should; especially if all you’re offering are empty platitudes.
Maybe I’m overly sensitive to this inanity as a) I just got bumped from my flight home and I’m beyond frustrated and b) I am deeply entrenched in the social networking communities.
The next two hours were spent in KLM purgatory, as a hoarse KLM attendant started the paperwork on our new flight (now scheduled for 10:50 the next morning), hotel room and accompanying voucher. Emails were sent to friends and family alerting them to our delay; all of them responded “Are you getting compensated?” Typical Americans.
Per KLM’s “Assistance and Compensation in case of cancellations, delays and denied boarding” pamphlet, we were given the choice of accepting either a “Transportation Credit Voucher” of 800 Euro, or cash compensation of 600 Euro (as of this writing, the conversion is $784 US, or about 80% of the cost of the ticket). Additionally, we received “free of charge: meals and refreshments in reasonable relation to the waiting time; hotel accommodation in cases where an overnight stay or a stay in addition to that which you originally intended becomes necessary (transport included); the cost of two telephone calls, fax messages or emails.” And buried at the end of the pamphlet is this gem: “You may also contact Customer Care to send us a complaint or compliment, or to share your travel experiences.” Well, clearly there’s no need to send an email when one can write a blog post, right?
We took the cash. By this time, it was around 7pm and all I wanted to do was be on my flight to NYC. And since that wasn’t a possibility, get to the hotel and decompress. We were told that our luggage would be avaiable downstairs and we just had to go down and get it. Apparently, though, that wasn’t the case. When we hit the baggage claim area, we were told by another KLM person that if we wanted our bags, we would have to wait three to four hours for them to come down to them. We were given ‘complimentary overnight toiletry bags” and told to have a nice day. The anger started rising up again; if we were staying overnight, we would have liked our bags. You know, clean clothes and all.
To be fair, though, in hindsight, it was the better play not having our luggage, as we didn’t have to wait on any lines at the airport the next morning for our flight.
It would be another hour until we got to the Courtyard Marriott, as KLM doesn’t pay for a taxi to take you to the hotel, but for the hotel’s shuttle. Which was scheduled to arrive at 8:15. Oh, by the way, it was cold. We were wonderfully unprepared for chilly weather, as we just spent the past 2 weeks in Italy. So we had that to fume on, as well.
Cold, exhausted, frustrated and just downright sad, we approached the concierge with our KLM voucher in hand. He saw it and flashed a wary smile. He’s done this a lot. I ask how often does this happen and he responded, “More than I like.” I followed up by asking if he could give a number. “We have a standing order with KLM for 15 rooms per day. They are filled every night. We’ve gotten as much as 60 booked rooms for one day.”
So I laugh, as I do some quick mat. $159 x 15 x 365 = $870,525; this doesn’t count the $785 (600 Euro) the airline gives customers who are bumped on flights longer than 1,500km – KLM offers 300 Euro for flights less than 1,500km, nor the 25 Euro per person for meals, and other expenses like the overnight toiletry bag they give you. And this is just at one airport. I don’t have access to KLM’s (or any other airlines) financial decisions, but if they’re spending over $1 million per year on accommodating passengers who are victims of overbooking, just so they don’t lose money per flight on the statistical chance some people don’t show up for their flight, then there are economics out there that my little brain can’t fathom. If a ticket on my flight cost $1,100, KLM just spent that on me for not getting on that flight. Even worse for them, they lost a customer. Over the span of a lifetime, I probably would have flown KLM several more times – a drop in the bucket for them, for sure – but loss of revenue is still loss of revenue.
I am not a professional traveler; I fly between 2 and 3 times a year, mostly domestic, but have flown internationally the past 3 years (and hopefully will be lucky enough to continue this trend in the future). But I do understand that I, not a frequent flyer, am an airlines dream: I will incur the costs of things precisely because I don’t travel often (compared to a frequent flyer who gets all the perks). And I understand that every airline overbooks many, if not all, their flights. But I’ve never been bumped before, and it sure does leave a bad taste in my mouth.
I was talking to a buddy about this and he said, more coherently than I could, that the issue is the injustice: you pay a lot of money for a ticket, follow all the ridiculous rules of flying and after two weeks away, all you want to do is get on the plane and head home. It’s not right, he said, how the airline industry doesn’t care about its customers; in fact, it only cares about one thing: pleasing its shareholders.
Now that I’ve had a few days to simmer down, as I’m back in NYC, I can reflect on the situation with a bit clearer mind and realized that while it was a major inconvenience, I did get home safely. And $1,500 richer. And a better understanding of how airlines make their money and value their customers. Also, I do feel bad for the attendants (who, by the way do not have names. They call each other “my colleague”) as they have to deal with angry customers like me on a daily basis. So I apologize to “my colleagues” at the Schiphol KLM desks.
I will do everything in my power to never fly KLM again (although I will still fly Delta).
I’d love to hear your horror stories on KLM – or any other airline.