Can an airline break its own rules?

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By Christopher Elliott

It’s true that airlines come up with some of the most absurd rules in the travel business. If you have any doubts, just ask your favorite travel agent to book a hidden city or back-to-back ticket.

Go on, I can wait.

So when Adriana Hall asked me if I’d consider mediating her case with Lufthansa, it didn’t take long to see the absurdity of her situation.

Missed flight due to airline’s error leaves passenger stranded

Hall’s story takes place amid tragic circumstances. Her father passed away last year and in order to fly to Romania for the funeral, she had to buy a last-minute walk-up fare. Lufthansa charged her $3,400 for the ticket, and had the nerve to call it a “bereavement” fare.

The outbound portion of her flight went off without a hitch. But not her return. Hall says she showed up to the airport 1 ½ hours early, but everything seemed quiet.

“This being a smaller airport with possibly only about a dozen flights per day, this seemed normal, but with an hour to go, and with a lady finally appearing at the counter, I went to inquire about checking in,” she says. “To my surprise, the lady at the desk said the boarding for this flight ended an hour ago and I will have to find another flight leaving on another day, because I had missed this one.”

Hall showed her the confirmation number and noted that there was still 40 minutes before the flight left, but the Lufthansa gate agent refused to let her board.

“I even offered to leave my check-in bag with my family, but the lady still insisted on denying me access to my flight,” she says.

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Here’s where it gets interesting. I’ll let Hall pick up the story:

It was also then that she mentioned the flight was full and check-in started an hour earlier because the same flight yesterday had been canceled and that there were many people needing to get on my flight. They gave my seat away.

When I asked her to put a note in my reservation profile, so that I would at least be able to go back to the airline with a “denied boarding” record in my file, she refused to do that.

In tears, I had no other alternative but to call my husband in the States, pay a penalty and book a new return fare, to get out on the earliest next flight.

Inconsistent enforcement of rules

Hall would have chalked this up to a lesson learned, except that when she finally boarded her flight back home, Lufthansa decided to break its own rules. Just 10 minutes before departure, she noticed a van pull up to the side of the plane, and several passengers boarded. (Here’s our guide to resolving your consumer problem.)

“I know it would have been possible for me to have made my original flight,” she says. (Related: Lufthansa canceled my flight a year ago. Where’s my $3,450 refund?)

She adds,

I wrote Lufthansa when I returned to explain what happened and was certain that this was a slam dunk case of incompetence and that a full refund would be issued, together with the sincerest apology. But I got a rather legalese e-mail back saying it is my responsibility to get to the airport on time.

So, should my advocacy team and I advocate for Hall? Well, it seems to me that Lufthansa should follow its own rules. If it could have let Hall board the flight and didn’t because of its own rules, and then failed to follow its restrictions, then it owes her an explanation, at the very least – not some form letter filled with gibberish.

I’m very tempted to take up Hall’s case, even though strictly speaking the airline followed all of its own rules in her particular case. The astronomical walk-up fare? Regrettably, yes. The denied boarding and the no-show? Also, correct. But this may be one of those cases when an airline does everything right but is still wrong.

Should I mediate Adrianna Hall’s case?

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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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