Airline removed me because of confusion about medical supplies

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By Christopher Elliott

Here’s an unusual case with an equally unusual resolution. It involves two airline passengers, a medical device and EU airline passenger law.

Now, before you say, “How exciting!” consider this — while the case may be exceedingly rare, and while this isn’t exactly a blog about medical supplies, the outcome of this medical device mishap could affect you on your next European flight.

So pay attention, you kids in the back of the class. Yeah, you know who I’m talking about.

Holly Mannchen and her husband were flying from Washington to Turkey on Lufthansa recently via Munich. She says they had sought approval for a portable oxygen concentrator before boarding. Her husband needed the medical device because of a lung condition. The transatlantic flight went smoothly.

But then things got complicated, as far as the airline and the medical device were concerned.

Mannchen explains

In Munich we were pre-boarded and sat on the aircraft while all the other passengers boarded. Just prior to takeoff, the pilot asked to see the concentrator, which we showed him.

At that time the pilot refused to let us fly and forced us off the aircraft. The pilot was ignorant as to what an oxygen concentrator was.

We were humiliated. We were escorted off the plane and told not to worry we would be on the next flight. When asked what was the difference between this flight that has not yet left, and the next flight, the gate personel answered “the pilot”. We were eventually booked on the next flight seven hours later.

Mannchen feels she and her husband was denied boarding under EU 261. They want their airline to compensate them.

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The definition of “denied boarding” is a little slippery, though, and it doesn’t address traveling with medical supplies.

“denied boarding” means a refusal to carry passengers on a flight, although they have presented themselves for boarding under the conditions laid down in Article 3(2), except where there are reasonable grounds to deny them boarding, such as reasons of health, safety or security, or inadequate travel documentation.

Lufthansa sees things differently. It offered the couple a $100 voucher which needed to be used within a month. That didn’t work for Mannchen. (Related: The American way of following European consumer protection laws.)

I contacted the airline on their behalf. It conducted its own investigation and send me the following response:

Passenger safety is the top priority for Lufthansa, and ultimately the Captain of an aircraft has the final say on such issues. As defined in AE 261 Article 2(j) “denied boarding” means a refusal to carry passengers on a flight, except where there are reasonable grounds to deny them boarding, such as reasons of health, safety or security, or inadequate travel documentation. According to the Captain of this particular flight, this was a health / safety issue and he had to make a judgment call, since he is responsible for all passengers. Furthermore, I have been informed that the passenger did not have a doctor’s note on hand to confirm that he was safe to fly.

Lufthansa was able to look into the situation and further research the issue, and so therefore the Captain of the second plane that the Mannchen’s flew on had more information when making his decision.

We completely understand that this was an unpleasant situation for Mr. and Mrs. Mannchen, and hope that they recognize the important responsibilities that a flight Captain has under him/herself. We will also contact the Mannchen couple and offer them each a $300 voucher with the hope that they will choose to experience a Lufthansa product once again.

The compensation was a pretty fair gesture

I thought that was a pretty fair gesture, considering the medical supplies issue only delayed the couple by a few hours. (Here’s what you need to know about the EC 261 and European air travel rights.)

But it didn’t work for the Mannchens, so they appealed to Lufthansa’s executives. In a letter taking Lufthansa to task for the way it handles passengers and their medical supplies, and their medical device in particular, she explains her reasons for rejecting the offer.

While this falls far short of the EU Regulations governing refunds for denied boarding, this would be acceptable if my husband was ever going to fly again, but since that trip he has decided never to fly again due to the humiliation and trouble he encountered with your airline. The problem is that the voucher is in my husband’s name and therefore cannot be used by me or anyone else, thereby will go unused.

I respectfully request you review our situation. It is my and my husband’s hope to have his voucher reissued in my name. While this does not change your current offer of $600 it will allow the offer to be of use to us.

Otherwise, I would appreciate that you would follow the EU Regulation 261/2004. (our flight was greater than 1500km and the alternate flight delay was 7 hours) and issue to my husband and me each by check a refund in the amount of EU400 (or USD equivalent).

And guess what? Lufthansa cut her a check for $555.

Maybe it does pay to fly with your medical supplies.

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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 three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and 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 X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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