Reader Question: Involuntary Downgraded On ETIHAD Flight Sold As Air Berlin Codeshare – Who Is Responsible?

19 Comments

Another Reader Question and yet another Involuntary Downgrade case this time involving a flight from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi operated by Etihad that was sold to our reader as an Air Berlin code share flight.

At the airport the passenger was confronted with the information from Etihad that his booking didn’t show to be in Business Class on the MEL-AUH segment despite having a printed confirmation in Business.

After reviewing the what the reader sent us it appears that there was a lot of confusion in terms of who actually fouled up that reservation.

This is the correspondence:

A few weeks back I have been downgraded on my Etihad leg of my AirBerlin flight in an outrageous way. The booking from Berlin to Melbourne contained the following itinerary in Business Class:

TXL-AUH-MEL / MEL-AUH-TXL

When I tried to check in flight AB4055 operated by Etihad under EY461 the agent told me that he cannot see a business class booking in his system, only economy. Showing him my booking confirmation made him trust me, but still he was not able to change anything in his system. He apologized quite a few times and convinced me that he is doing his best to get the booking corrected. He tried to reach Air Berlin staff via phone but could not reach anyone.

Since I am an AirBerlin TopBonus Gold member, I called the gold hotline and the AirBerlin staff changed the booking in Germany and helped the Etihad agent to fix the booking back to Business. The call from Australia to Germany was around 150 Euro. I received my boarding passes, boarded and took up my seat in Business.

What then happened was very upsetting… After a few minutes the flight attendant told me that there was a problem and I had to go back to the check in counter to check in again! I went back and the same Etihad agent apologized again and again and told me that he just received another call from AirBerlin telling him that I have to be downgraded and handed me over my Economy boarding pass.

I could not work on the flight, spend 150€ on the phone, didn’t receive miles and lost 4 hours of my life discussing with Etihad and AirBerlin staff. Obviously, I filed a complaint and received the following answer from AirBerlin: Claims are to be directed to the operating airline, no matter who my contract partner was in the first place. But they would be happy to see me on board soon. …

When I read this, more than one alarm bell going off. This sounds rather fishy and more like foul play than anything else ,but due to lack of further details it’s really hard to say what Etihad did there or if Air Berlin indeed messed around with the booking.

First of all, the reader submitted us the booking confirmation for his flights, showing all Air Berlin code share flights in Business Class.

So based on the reader’s account what happened was:

  • Passenger flew without issues to MEL and arrived at the airport for the return flight
  • Operating carrier (Etihad) claims booking is only in Economy despite confirmation in Business
  • Passenger calls Air Berlin from his personal cellphone to fix the booking successfully
  • Passenger receives Business Class boarding passes from Etihad and boards
  • Staff approached Passenger on board and he is told that he is being downgraded again
  • Apparently Air Berlin called the agent in MEL to tell him about the repeated downgrade

Tell me what you want, but especially this last part is completely detached from reality. Air Berlin calls an Agent in Australia at the gate to inform (without reasons given) about a downgrade of a ticket that has been fixed just moments ago? Laughable!

I’d love to know how full the flight was that day and if there were potential VIPs/staff traveling on standby tickets that waited to slip into the reader’s seat after he had received the downgrade.

From my experience with situations like these, it sounds like Etihad pulled a fast one on the passenger, bumping him off his seat to use it for someone else. Either due to an oversell situation or be,cause the station/flight manager has ‘personal friends’ or VIPs to take care of. Even though I consider Etihad a somewhat well run airline, I wouldn’t put such a thing past them depending on who wants that seat.

Of course there is the slight chance that Air Berlin indeed made a mistake with the booking but then the reader would have hopefully provided us with a more detailed account of what they actually said.

Their reply:

Air Berlin is telling the passenger that his downgrade was caused by Etihad and he has to approach them for regulation of the matter.

Again from the sounds and looks of it, I consider Etihad the responsible entity for this as well so our reader would have to approach Etihad Customer Relations in Germany (best send letter mail to their regional sales office) and putting them on notice to provide proof and an official statement about the situation.

In the end, I can very well see both airlines stonewalling and leaving the customer high and dry in which case he has two options:

  • Hire an attorney in Germany to go after Etihad
  • Use the German Ombudsman (Schlichtungsstelle fuer Personenverkehr, see here) to probe Air Berlin further

Etihad unfortunately doesn’t participate in the ombudsman process (the participation isn’t mandatory and a range of airlines didn’t sign up) so the only way to get them to compensate the passenger fairly would be through legal action.

I have used the ombudsman successfully before and can say from experience that the airlines that don’t participate in that process (British Airways, Etihad, Thai Airways etc) are usually those with the worst customer service who try to weasel out of any potential claim, even if completely legitimate.

Conclusion

Personally, I’d have refused to fly Melbourne to Abu Dhabi in Economy Class had I paid for Business. Worst case I’d have asked them to charge me for an upgrade or a new ticket and claiming the money later through their customer relations department or in the worst case legal action as described above.

It’s hard to give any more specific advice in this matter other than requesting one more account of the situation from Etihad, and if the reply is negative (which I assume it will be) to then immediately initiate legal proceedings.

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  • Mike

    Once again, Etihad screws the customer. Forget about any rights or trying to deal with any “customer service” after the fact. Etihad doesn’t have one. They stonewall, don’t respond and just remain completely useless when it comes to any issues.

    Go on social media and they say “DM us with your issue”. Because they don’t want any negative publicity.

    Their product is fine – but their service in case something goes wrong is absolutely horrendous.

    • CSFail

      It’s true – the ME3 (although EK seems the best of the three) and quite a few other airlines have dreadful customer service for post-sales issues (if you can’t fix online, the dreaded call to the call centre will be a nightmare). Pretty much because the airlines don’t see any incentive to be anything other than terrible (it’ll be poorly trained individuals, with zero customer service skills, who just see you as a problem to get rid off or be fobbed off, that they won’t be rewarded for offering any actual assistance, even if they do have the capability to assist).

      Just like when irrops hit, very few airlines demonstrate leadership. If they have your cash, you can just go fish.

      It’s a weird problem, given no issue on the outbound journey. I wonder if it was a price error ticket they just decided not to honour midway, or as suggested, some agent up to dirty tricks (it does happen).

      • Boobaholic

        Consider their nation’s attitude to human rights then consider how little they would consider any consumer ‘rights’ !!

  • Gaijinsan

    Why would anyone in this day and age use direct dial roaming on a cell phone to call? Who doesn’t have access to Skype or Viber Out?

    I had a major issue with Asiana at JFK recently, where I was on roaming, so used Viber Out to call United (who issued my ticket). It took a good 45 minutes but the 1K line got us 2 business seats on ANA instead, allowing us to get home on time… I can’t imagine what that call would have cost if I were silly enough to use direct dial. The Viber Out call was totally free.

    I don’t know about the OP if they were on a business trip or not, but I find a lot of business travelers who can expense most items get extremely wasteful with their company’s money, so don’t have cheap provisions in place (like a simple Skype account and local sim card/wifi access) for situations like this.

    • AJ

      sometimes you are on transit and short on time to get a sim and the public wifi is too slow to be able to login to skype . the only option while in a slight panic would be to use direct dial. it happens/ed.

      • Yep. Airport WiFi is often inadequate for anything else than light FB or Twitter browsing.

    • penny

      Because there are a lot of us who have never used it or don’t know how! I have never even heard of Viber Out and while standing in line, to try to login to a few different accounts would be difficult while holding bags/tickets, etc.

      • Gaijinsan

        It doesn’t require a log in on the spot. Viber Out, Skype, etc. stay logged in on your smartphone. All you need is a decent data signal and your $100 international phone call suddenly costs less than a buck or is totally free to US toll free numbers.

        No way I could look at my boss with a straight face and ask him to approve an expense for a $100 international direct dial call with today’s technology so easy to use. Business class flights, decent hotels, and meals are reasonable, but many corporate travelers are insanely wasteful with other expensable items.

        • I need to do conference calls every once in a while and difficult to rely on VOIP 100%. Best option would be to have cell phone plan that allows roaming calls at a decent price.

    • S LATEEF

      While I agree with the use of technology, it may not be available to you always. For e.g. the Airport WiFi may be too slow to get you anywhere with your VoIP service. To ensure you are able to use a VoIP service while travelling, you may have to shell out $300 for a Travel Pass (on Telstra Australia) which in itself is a rip-off. And even if you somehow manage good internet connectivity, you may not be able to use your choice of VoIP service –
      http://gulfbusiness.com/voip-services-skype-viber-illegal-uae-clarifies-regulator/
      https://www.privateinternetaccess.com/blog/2016/07/use-vpn-bypass-voip-ban-uae-get-fined-544k/

      So I would not go on blaming the reader for using direct dial.

  • aqua

    AB is famous for not willing to pay any compensation, AB Gold hotline can’t do anything since they are part of Topbonus and any cash claim or anything that is related to it is being done by Arvato for AB, so its a outside firm.
    I had many EU261 claims with AB before and not a single time did they want to pay any compensation whatsoever.
    Here is my guideline for doing business with AB:
    1.: contact AB via https://www.airberlin.com/de/feedback/complaint and set them a 14day deadline
    2.: after the 14day deadline (100% they will not pay til then) contact a German lawyer.
    My go to person is: husemannpartner.de its free for me everytime since they just bill AB directly (of course if the claim is legitimate)
    3.: Wait til the lawyer sent AB a payment notice (also you need to wait another 14days), AB usually pays between 10-14days, sometimes they refused, so we went to court and won every single time since German and EU law is pretty straight forward when it comes to those things.

    • Barbarella

      Had a flight delay of 4.5 hours FUE-TXL marketed and operated by AB in Jan 2016. I redeemed AAdvantage Saver miles for that trip. We were traveling as a couple. I submitted an EU complain through their website. We received 2 x 400 euro vouchers within a week and I redeemed them almost immediately for some summer flights for Aug 2016. Back then I was EXP AA and AB Gold. Perhaps I was just lucky.

  • I have only flown Etihad once. It was in their flagship First Class Apartments from LHR-AUH. There were multiple issues onboard and on the ground that proved far from First Class. The trip cost us thousands of dollars but no-one at Etihad was interested in speaking to us – despite exhaustive efforts at getting through to someone. They do not care and operate a borderline criminal enterprise – take the money and leave you high and dry.

    It really put a dampener on our first days in the UAE but eventually I gave up and vowed never to fly them again. I have flown airlines based on all continents and can honestly say Etihad is by the far the worst I have had the displeasure of dealing with. As others have said they reply fast on social media but that team are completely separate to “Guest Relations” and senior management ignore direct communication whether at Group CEO, CEO, Media or senior manager level. I feel sick even recalling this. I am rarely a victim but Etihad definitely completely conned me.

  • Jason

    Etihad tried a similar game in Melbourne with me last year. I was very clear and very direct and told the check in agent to fix it, I told them that I would not fly coach and they gave me an upgrade to First. I think they must oversell business out of Melbourne? I was very underwhelmed by the first class service and have not used Etihad again it is not a good service airline!

  • boobaholic

    i’d have snuck into business class to see who was sat in the business seat I had been allocated. An Etihad pilot in transit perhaps.

  • boobaholic

    i’d have snuck into business class to see who was sat in the business seat I had been allocated. An Etihad pilot in transit perhaps.

  • boobaholic

    This is a Middle East airline. consider their nation’s attitude to human rights then consider how little they would consider any consumer ‘rights’ !!

  • H.M.J.

    I had my own experience with Etihad a few weeks ago. Although I bought the ticket from Daressalam via Abu Dhabi to Berlin on the Etihad website online – alle flights had an EY flight number – no one felt responsible for a four hour delay in Abu Dhabi on my return flight. I missed the flight by 5 minutes as you need 15 minutes to go from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3 and was re-booked for a flight four hours later arriving at 3.30 a.m. in Muscat (on a sort of stopover). Ok, I know Muscat by heart, called Avis and the Shangri-La via Skype to let them know about my delay but Etihad claimed I had to approach Air Berlin for any compensation while Air Berlin referred me back to Etihad as it sold me the ticket. Both airlines are having a dreadful customer service lately and I am not surprised that Air Berlin is not making profit …