Lufthansa can’t charge me $1,360 for this change! Can it?

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Christopher Elliott

All Gabriele Stahl wanted was to modify her Lufthansa flight to Germany. And all the airline wanted from her was $1,360 — an unreasonable amount to fix the flight, she says.

But who’s right? Stahl’s case is a teachable moment about flight cancellations, airline logic, and the power of persistence.

Also, it’s a fun opportunity to extract a response from an airline that hates, hates, hates appearing in this column.

Who changed this Lufthansa flight?

Last year, Stahl booked a flight from San Francisco to Munich directly on the Lufthansa website.

“A few weeks later, the airline informed me that the flight had changed and that there would be a stopover in Frankfurt,” she explains. “Given that, it was more convenient for me just to terminate my flight in Frankfurt than to continue on to Munich.”

This passenger intended to fly nonstop from San Francisco to Munich. So what went wrong?

So Stahl phoned Lufthansa and asked to change the ticket to Frankfurt. An agent confirmed that the change would not increase the price. Unfortunately, she didn’t get that promise in writing.

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Surprise! You don’t have a ticket to Germany

“When I went to the ticket counter on my flight day, a Lufthansa employee told me that I hadn’t paid for my ticket to Frankfurt yet,” she says. “How was I supposed to know that? I was under the assumption that the original charge still applied since the representative told me on the phone it would be exactly the same price. This was a complete surprise to me.”

Yeah, that’s quite an überraschung, as the Germans would say.

She had to pay Lufthansa a walk-up fare of $2,360.

“I have been fighting with Lufthansa ever since,” she says.

By “fighting,” she means she means she’s emailed them several times. She says she thinks the airline hasn’t even read her messages. How does she know that?

“I asked two very specific questions. I haven’t received an answer in five weeks. All I want is a refund of $1,360, which is the fare difference,” she added.

Is Lufthansa right or wrong about this ticket change?

Lufthansa should have done what it promised by phone: changed the flight from Munich to Frankfurt without charging her.

But unfortunately, Stahl had no evidence that the phone conversation happened. The airline does; it records all calls for “quality assurance” purposes. But if you think the airline will release their phone records to our team, you’re wrong. Those recordings are for the airline’s benefit, not yours.

Until we’re on a level playing field — when both sides can legally record the conversation, and do — we’ll have problems like this.

By the way, that hasn’t stopped some of our clever readers from recording conversations on their own. Regular readers will remember the case of Mikayla Shade, who recorded an American Airlines agent giving her clear and inaccurate information. That case ended in her favor after the airline reviewed its own copy of that conversation.

But most passengers don’t have that type of smoking gun.

So what did Stahl have?

Why didn’t Lufthansa fix this without charging its passenger?

The written correspondence between her and Lufthansa was frustrating for me to read. It looks like she spent many hours trying to secure a confirmation for her new flight, to no avail. Finally, she just went to the airport on the day of her departure, hoping for the best.

Bad idea.

If you find yourself in this, make sure you have a confirmation number for the new flight. It looks as if Lufthansa didn’t do what it said. Instead, it canceled Stahl’s old flight and issued a full refund. Then it made a new reservation and waited for you to pay for it.

That’s not what she wanted.

What does an airline owe you when it changes the schedule?

Like all airlines, when Lufthansa changed Stahl’s schedule, it owed her either a full refund or a replacement flight of its choosing.

It’s all in the airlines’ terms and conditions under “involuntary refunds.”

10.2.1. We will give you a refund as set out below if we cancel a flight, fail to operate a flight according to the timetable (i.e. delay of more than 2h for a long term irregularity or delay of more than 5h for a short term irregualarity [sic].

So technically, Lufthansa did what it was supposed to, but it didn’t tell Stahl. It also failed to answer her questions.

Bad airline!

Tips for getting the schedule change you want

How could Stahl have avoided this problem?

  • Ask specific questions when you reschedule
    I think if Stahl had known about the terms and conditions, then she would have known about the two options. She could have specifically asked — are you going to refund or reschedule? — instead of asking a different question that eventually led to this misunderstanding.
  • Record the call
    Short of getting everything in writing, you really need to start recording your calls. I know I’m going to get myself into a lot of trouble for saying this, so here’s my disclaimer: Void where prohibited. But for cryin’ out loud, people, it’s 2022. Every company records its calls. Are we the only ones who aren’t allowed to? What kind of double standard is that?
  • Assume nothing
    This bears repeating: Never show up to the airport without a confirmation number. Don’t assume you have a ticket without any evidence. If you have a ticket, you’ll have a confirmation number. If you’ve canceled a flight, you’ll have a cancellation number. If you don’t have either, get one.
  • How to fight a problem with a canceled flight
    Lufthansa isn’t going to like this resolution. And we’ll probably get another takedown request from their lawyers, claiming we’re violating EU law (we aren’t). We list the names, numbers, and email addresses of the Lufthansa executives in our database. Unfortunately, Lufthansa almost never responds to our inquiries, so I recommended Stahl send a brief letter of complaint to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Lufthansa promptly refunded the fare difference. I asked the airline to comment on this story, but it didn’t respond, as usual.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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