Lufthansa’s mistake left us stranded in Canada for Thanksgiving

Donald Zupan and his wife were returning from their European vacation when their Lufthansa flight between Barcelona and Frankfurt was canceled. The airline rebooked them on an Air Canada flight to Toronto, but when they tried to board their connecting flight on United to Jacksonville, Fla., they were denied boarding.

What happened next is a tale of two airlines bouncing the Zupans back and forth as if they were playing in a grand slam.

Will Zupan need our help to resolve this problem with the airlines or will he be another successful self-advocate? Or worse, is Zupan still stuck in Toronto as I write this?

The Zupans planned a European vacation just before Thanksgiving, and scheduled their return flights so they would be home in time to spend Thanksgiving with their children and grandchildren. But the day before their journey home was to begin, they were notified that Lufthansa had canceled the flight they booked from Barcelona to Frankfurt.

Early the next morning Zupan was notified that he and his wife had been rebooked on an Air Canada flight from Barcelona to Toronto, arriving earlier than their original Lufthansa flight. After a four-hour stopover they tried to board their United Airlines flight to Jacksonville, Fla.

Even though the Zupans were holding boarding passes with seat assignments for the United flight, the gate agents wouldn’t allow them to board. One of the agents informed the Zupans that they were not booked on the flight, in spite of the boarding passes they had in hand. According to Zupan, the agent indicated that the ticket was missing on the boarding passes and directed them back to the Air Canada office to have the tickets corrected.

But Air Canada didn’t issue the boarding passes — Lufthansa did.

Zupan and his wife are senior citizens, and running back and forth in an airport is not easy for them, but they did make it back to Air Canada. I’ll let Zupan tell us what happened next:

When we arrived at the Air Canada office they indicated we had ticket numbers, wrote them down and sent us back to the United Gate F68 to board the plane. We rushed back to the gate and the United supervisor told us the plane had departed.

They said it was not their problem, since Air Canada had brought us to Toronto, it was their problem. The United supervisor said he was sorry that he could not do anything for us and that this experience was going to get “UGLY” so be prepared.

Not understanding how “ugly” their time at the Toronto airport was going to be, Zupan asked about their luggage and was told the three bags had been removed from the plane and could be claimed in the baggage area.

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They returned to the Air Canada office and were told that the boarding denial needed to be addressed by Lufthansa since it booked the tickets. Airline personnel took them through some locked doors to baggage claim, which of course was on the other side of customs and immigration.

After waiting an hour for their bags, Zupan and his wife headed to the Lufthansa office, where they found a long line of travelers waiting to speak with an agent. When it was finally their turn to talk to someone the supervisor told them it was 9:15 pm and the office was going to close so the agents could go home. Zupan responded that they were stranded in Toronto and needed help. Apparently unsympathetic, the supervisor gave them a business card, told them to call those numbers, and then directed them back to the Air Canada office because Lufthansa could do nothing for them.

Taking their three large bags plus their carry-on bags back to the Air Canada office, they waited another 45 minutes to listen to the supervisor tell them again that it was not Air Canada’s problem and that the couple would need to contact Lufthansa.

With no cell phone service in Canada, no Canadian money, and an expectation that they would be able to reach someone at Lufthansa, they spent the night in the airport, repeatedly using the courtesy phone in the airport to attempt to reach someone at one of the numbers listed on the card the Lufthansa supervisor gave them. No one ever answered any of the numbers.

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At 9:15 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning, the couple went back to the Lufthansa office at the airport but no one was there. The Zupans finally decided to book their own flight home, but there was no flight available until the following day. They booked it, left the airport, finally got some rest at a local hotel and flew home the day after Thanksgiving.

When they returned home, Zupan contacted Lufthansa, asking for a refund of the $815 he spent for their hotel and returned flight, plus a refund of their unused tickets. He estimated the total cost of the reimbursement should be $1,500.

In Lufthansa’s Terms and Conditions it promises that it will provide current information on cancellations and delays “in a timely manner,” which it did.

In the section on involuntary refunds, Lufthansa promises that if it cancels a flight or causes a passenger to miss a connecting flight the amount of the refund — in the case of partially used tickets — “will be not less than the difference between the fare paid and the applicable fare for travel between the points for which the Ticket has been used.”

So Lufthansa’s own terms seem to support Zupan’s claim that they owe him a refund on the unused portion of their ticket, at least for the flight cancellation. But Lufthansa’s rebooking also caused the Zupans to miss their connecting flight.

In Lufthansa’s Passenger Rights page, it also outlines a traveler’s rights under EU 261.

According to these rights, when Zupan’s original flight was canceled he was entitled to “re-routing, care, refund, and compensation,” unless the cancellation is because of “extraordinary circumstances” or cancellation occurs at least 14 days prior or if the alternate flight reaches the final destination less than four hours after the original flight schedule would have arrived.

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Lufthansa did book the Zupans on other flights, but its mistake in rebooking didn’t even allow them to arrive on the same day as their originally planned flights, much less within four hours. While this specific situation isn’t covered by EU 261, Lufthansa taking full responsibility for the error is the right thing to do.

When Zupan didn’t immediately hear back from Lufthansa, he could have used our customer service contacts for Lufthansa. He contacted us instead, and we sent him to our forums. Our forum advocates had some questions about his original post, but Zupan never returned to the forum to respond.

In the end Zupan effectively self-advocated this case, and we did not need to get involved. Lufthansa eventually responded to him, and after some negotiation the Zupans agreed to a settlement, with the airline refunding the costs they incurred during their two unplanned nights in Toronto and for their flights home to Jacksonville. Lufthansa also reimbursed the Zupans an additional $200.

Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans. Read more of Michelle Bell's articles here.

  • sirwired

    Asking for reimbursement AND a full refund for the unused legs was a bit much; but while I’m not an EU 261 expert, I’d think that they should be eligible for the full 600EUR (plus reimbursement for expenses); not just the $200 they got. EU 261 indeed stops applying once you successfully arrive outside Europe (even if you have a connecting flight to which horrible things happen), but in this case, since Toronto wasn’t their original flight destination, I would not have stopped the proverbial clock.

    On another note, what is it with airlines forgetting to properly ticket flights on other airlines? You’d think the system wouldn’t even let the counter staff reserve a seat on another airline without ticketing it during the “write over” process (or whatever it’s called.) It’s happened to me, it’s happened to quite a few people writing in here.

  • jmj

    As a Canadian expat who now lives in the US, let’s just get this out there…Air Canada is horrendous. The. Worst. Airline. Ever. and I’m including spirit in this comparison.

  • BubbaJoe123

    “EU 261 indeed stops applying once you successfully arrive outside Europe (even if you have a connecting flight to which horrible things happen)”

    Nope. For a trip departing the EU, the entire trip is covered to your final destination. If you’re flying London-New York-Cleveland, and you get into Cleveland more than three hours late, you’re entitled to EU261 compensation, regardless of whether the London-New York flight arrived on time or not.

    “Consequently, in the case of directly connecting flights, the fixed compensation must be determined according to the delay beyond the scheduled time of arrival at the final destination, understood as the destination of the last flight taken by the passenger concerned.”

  • sirwired

    Shoot, you are right. I was thinking of the exception to that rule, where it’s a ticket on non-EU carrier. Under such circumstances, EU jurisdiction ends when the flight arrives at the first non-EU destination.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Interesting, I hadn’t heard about that exception, thanks for letting me know.

    So, if I’m flying LHR-JFK-CLE, and the LHR-JFK flight is on AA, with AA flying JFK-CLE, then EU 261 doesn’t apply so long as the LHR-JFK flight is <3 hours late. If the LHR-JFK leg is on BA, then EU 261 does apply to the whole trip. Got it.

  • PsyGuy

    Wow what a nightmare, they should have gotten 2 system wide first class vouchers.

  • PsyGuy

    Ever flown Ryanair? I’ve al heard Air Koryo is worse than Air canada.

  • sirwired

    I’ve done some quick Googling to refresh my memory… it works like this:
    All EU metal, end to end? Doesn’t matter where the individual legs are going to/from, as long as the ticket starts or ends in the EU. Duh.

    Some (or all) non-EU metal? It gets complicated.
    – Legs on non-EU metal going into the EU aren’t covered.
    – Legs on non-EU metal leaving the EU ARE covered.

    Now, for the actual situation at hand… what about non-EU to non-EU connections on non-EU metal?
    – If the delay to your final destination was due to an arrival delay on your flight that was leaving the EU (and that flight was on EU metal), you are covered. (i.e. You arrived in JFK on BA late and missed your connection (on the same ticket) to Cleveland on AA, resulting in a total delay of eight hours.) The length of the arrival delay in the US is irrelevant, as long as it caused you to miss your connecting flight. (That’s the case you found.)
    – If the leg leaving the EU is on non-EU metal, they just have to land you outside the EU on time, and your connections are irrelevant. (You go from LHR to JFK to CLE, all on AA metal.) The regulations and rulings aren’t written that way, but on a practical basis the EU jurisdiction terminates when the flight from a non-EU company lands outside the EU, so there’s no way to get the airline to pay. AA doesn’t care what the EU thinks about a flight beginning and ending in the US. Maybe this will change in the future, but that’s the state of things right now.
    – If the delay to your final destination was solely due to a delay on the non-EU metal flights wholly outside the EU (no matter who you flew leaving the EU), you aren’t covered. In that case, EU 261 terminates when you land outside the EU. (You arrive in JFK on-time, but CLE is canceled due to a mechanical on AA, and you arrive ten hours late.) All compensation is supposed to be paid by the carrier responsible for the delay, so that flight isn’t connected to EU law at all. I don’t see any hope of that changing.
    – If you are trying to get to the EU and miss your flight on EU metal due to a delay on non-EU flights on non-EU metal, you aren’t covered. (CLE to JFK is late, causing you to miss JFK to LHR.)

  • sofar

    On a trip to Europe as a college student, my friend and I got caught up in a nearly identical situation.

    We spent 3 days in the airport before either airline (Lufthansa and United in our case) bothered to get us on a replacement flight. This was in the days before cellphones, so we were truly stranded, relying on the mercy of airline customer service at the airport. We finally found a United customer-service rep who was aghast at what had happened to us and booked us on a flight for that day.

    Being young and inexperienced, it never occurred to us to advocate for ourselves after the whole ordeal. So I’m glad the Zupans got the money they were due.

  • AAGK

    Why do none of the people in the past few stories have working cell phones?

  • PsyGuy

    they were overseas with carriers who didn’t have or they didn’t want to pay the international roaming or upgrade plans.

  • PsyGuy

    That’s actually confusing.

  • The Original Joe S

    So use your phone and pay the high rate. How much is it worth to solve the problem?

  • PsyGuy

    Depending on the wait and hold times that would be hugely expensive.

  • Pegtoo

    Trip insurance helps here – they will call and sit in hold purgatory (over an hour in our situation… yes, Air Canada) to get thru to a representative, then called us and made a 3-way conversation. Just wish I’d thought of that the night before during our first delay, cost me over $100 to hold on my cellphone. Lesson learned.

  • Alan Gore

    We have had an unusual number of complaints involving this carrier. It seems to be one to avoid. Ryanair and Spirit are in a different category: low-cost carriers on which you are explicitly trading off service for the lowest possible fare. Air Canada is supposed to be a system airline.

  • Extramail

    This is why I am glad the comments section has reappeared. I learned something from the story and I’ve learned something from sir wired and bubba.

  • Carchar

    Me too. I find the comments section add much to the solving of problems, especially when there is so much not addressed in the main story. I had started skipping over many of the stories and just by luck, saw the one which announced the return of the comment section.

  • sirwired

    Yes, it most certainly is. (The examples I included with each bullet should make slightly more clear.)

  • Attention All Passengers

    Unbelievable horror All because LH did not CORRECTLY exchange the original ticket. I also feel UA could have advocated (phoned AC and/or LH) as a courtesy Star Alliance carrier with AC and LH to expedite correct ticketing instead of the usual dumping on the unsuspecting Passengers to figure it out on their own. Gone are the days when ANY of those three airlines’ agents would know how to fix this correctly and actually want to help people. For peace of mind, I guess everyone needs to be educated about all airlines hidden and various ticketing rules long before they travel.

  • PsyGuy

    We have different definitions of “slightly” and “clear”.

  • jmj

    That’s kinda my point–w low cost airlines, you know what you’re getting. Even inexperienced travelers know they’re low cost a-la-carte carriers. But as alan mentioned above, AC is a legacy carrier, and is supposed to be Canada’s national airline. It’s not supposed to be like the low cost airlines. Yet it is, but it’s definitely not low cost, far from it.

  • PsyGuy

    I don’t see AC as a low cost carrier, and I don’t see them acting like one. I only fly AC internationally, and I get equivalent amenities that I would on US legacy carriers. I can select seat assignments for free, i get 2 checked bags, a personal item and a carry on. I get two meals during the flight plus snack and beverage service. The sat is comfortable enough, the entertainment options are okay (plus a USB port to power my iDevice). I’d say the flight experience is average for a legacy carrier.

  • AAGK

    Well that was a bad idea.

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