I gave up my seat on the flight! Where is the $2,400 refund?

He accepted a voluntary reroute on his flight to Naples, Italy. Where is his reimbursement?

What if you give up your seat on your flight and the airline doesn’t pay what it promises you?

That’s what happened to John Keohen. Lufthansa lured him off a recent flight with a promise of a $2,400 refund. Keohen gave up his seat — and then Lufthansa gave him nothing. (We’re taking a short holiday break this week — this is a popular story from Sept 2019)

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So begins one of the most patience-testing cases that this consumer advocacy organization has handled in years. It involved multiple contacts with the airline and Germany’s air transportation regulators and, since it’s Lufthansa, mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Keohen’s loss is your gain: His story is a case study in the importance of proper documentation, persistence, and the value of calling a professional.

Lufthansa: Give up your seat and we’ll pay you $2,400

In August 2018, Keohen and two other passengers had tickets to fly from Minneapolis to Naples, Italy, via Chicago and Munich, Germany.

“Our flight from Minneapolis to Chicago was delayed by bad weather and we missed the Lufthansa flight to Munich,” he says. “Our travel agent got us booked on another Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt then Naples.”

But while he was standing in line in Chicago, a Lufthansa representative made an announcement: If anyone gave up their confirmed seat, they’d receive an $800 “refund” per person. Their flight to Frankfurt was overbooked and Lufthansa needed volunteers to take another flight. It offered to rebook them on the next available flight at no extra charge.

“We took him up on that offer and were told us we would need to contact Lufthansa customer service to get the money,” he says. “We traveled the remainder of the trip on Swiss Air with no issues.”

Where’s my money, Lufthansa?

When Koehen returned from Italy, he noticed that Lufthansa hadn’t paid the $2,400, as promised. So he wrote a brief, polite email to the airline, asking it to honor their agreement. It refused.

Kindly allow us to explain that we do not offer compensation for any irregularities on a rebooked flight unless it is the affected original segment.

There was a delay on your first segment, which caused you to miss your original connecting flights. Since the operating carrier of the delayed flight was a non-European airline and was departing from a non-European airport, EU regulation does not apply.

That’s a serious disconnect. Not only is Lufthansa claiming it never promised Koehen the $800 in compensation (technically not a refund) but it suggests paying him that compensation would be against the law.

Not true. EU 261, has some limits. But a carrier can — and should — pay the compensation it promises. There’s no law against that.

Did Lufthansa really offer him $2,400 to give up his seat?

What evidence does Koehen have that Lufthansa offered him $2,400 to give up his seat? Plenty. He had three pieces of paper that looked like this:

He gave up his seat on his flight. Where is the involuntary reroute compensation?
Proof that Lufthansa promised each passenger $800 to give up their seats.

This was about as much of a slam-dunk as we could want. It’s annotated by a Lufthansa supervisor, whose name Keohen had noted, and stamped with an official Lufthansa stamp. Case closed, right?

Well, no.

Even when my advocacy team showed his paperwork to Lufthansa, it ignored us and the customer. We contacted them three times, and each time the airline ignored us.

By the end of 2018, our executive director, Michelle Couch-Friedman, advised the passenger to file a complaint with Germany’s aviation regulators at the Luftfahrt-Bundesamt.

He did.

Lufthansa changes its tune

When German regulators got involved, the airline started to see things his way. Here’s its response:

We regret that you were affected by a denied boarding on flight LH 435 on 28 August 2018 traveling from Chicago to Frankfurt am Main. We apologize for the inconvenience caused.

In accordance with the EU regulations and due to the circumstances leading to this irregularity we would like to offer you a compensation payment without recognition of a legal obligation prejudging the factual and legal stipulations of this case.

A wire transfer totaling 800 USD each person claimed has been processed and we ask for your understanding that it may take several days before the payment have been credited to your bank account.

Case closed? Not quite.

I gave up my seat so how long will it take to get the money?

Keohen also received a reply from the Luftfahrt-Bundesamt, asking him to contact the agency if he didn’t receive the money within eight weeks.

But after eight weeks, nothing.

He sent another email to Lufthansa, but the money was still missing in action. Michelle sent another follow up to the executives at Lufthansa. And Keohen contacted the German regulators again, but weeks turned into months.

Finally, on Sept. 16, he received the following reply from the airline:

We have sent you today a new check in amount of 2.400 USD to the address you provided us with. You should receive it in the next days.

We apologize for the delay.

And the money finally arrived, more than a year after his flight.

What went wrong?

How could this happen? Easy. Lufthansa’s customer service team looked at the itinerary and its records, which were probably incomplete. Based on what they knew, they denied his request for $800 in compensation.

When he showed them the paperwork, it didn’t pass Lufthansa’s sniff test. The “promise” could have been forged. Again, it probably had no records of promising the refunds. Indeed, these travelers could have insisted on a more official voucher or letter than the faded document they showed us.

For the record, none of the members of our advocacy team (and I include myself in this group) felt the paperwork was bogus. We would never have pursued this case if we did.

The part of this story that I find baffling is this: Why did Lufthansa drag its feet for almost six months even though German regulators had sided with the passenger?

I don’t know. Maybe it was hoping that Keohen and the German regulators — and my advocacy team — would just go away. Not a chance.

But this case is instructive. You don’t have to wait an entire year for your compensation check to arrive.

How to avoid a loooooong payment delay

Here are a few suggestions for avoiding a lengthy delay:

  • Keep a paper trail that would make the Germans proud.
    A letter on letterhead signed by an authorized representative should suffice. Don’t let them scribble on a printout. It’s not good enough.
  • File a claim early.
    Don’t wait until you return from your trip to file a claim. Planes have WiFi, so it’s a perfect time to get the claims process started. The sooner, the better.
  • Call the pros.
    Whether it’s regulators or a company like AirHelp or a consumer advocate, you should call a professional if you want to fast-track your refund or compensation check.
  • Keep up the pressure.
    Keohen never gave up. Neither did my advocacy team. By applying polite pressure over an extended time, we finally got the promised money.

It should never have come to this, of course. Airlines, just like other corporations, should do what they say. You can’t promise your customers something and then not deliver. Shouldn’t companies face a penalty for delaying payment like they did for Keohen?

It feels like Lufthansa is getting away with something here.

*This article was first published on Sept. 19, 2019

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