“Bottle of Bushmills, Euro 33.50; reimbursement for cancelled flight, Euro 400 a piece; multiple apologies from Austrian Airlines, priceless!”

This past July on our way back home, to Jerusalem, Israel from Krakow, Poland we lived through the absolute worst travel experience in our lives. It was so harrowing that we decided to write a letter to Deutsche Lufthansa, AG. We requested only the minimal compensation of our lost bottle of Bushmills (Euro 33.50). Today, (2 days before Rosh HaShanna), Austrian Airlines notified us that we would be compensated for the Bushmills and that they will send us an additional Euro 800. In their letter they apologized 5 times and “deeply regretted” their lack of proper service once! IsraeLightly is sharing this story to encourage others travelers who have been caused suffering by any airlines to go right ahead and write a letter of complaint! Please do be aware that unlike the United States, the European Union has a specific European Parliament Law (“Regulation (EC) 261/2004”) which covers reimbursement for delayed and/or cancelled flights.
 
Here’s our letter:
24 July 2011
Subject: Complaint regarding flight service originating from Austrian Airlines Flight 859 on 14 July 2011

To Whom It May Concern at the Customer Service Division of Deutsche Lufthansa, AG

Dear Sir or Madam,

First of all we wish to note that we are addressing this letter to Deutsche Lufthansa, AG, as Parent Corporation and owner of Austrian Airlines, AG, because according to all internet information we have found Austrian Airlines either does not respond to travelers complaints or sends out inappropriate responses. It is our hope that Deutsche Lufthansa AG, with its excellent customer service record and in general better customer relations than its wholly owned subsidiary Austrian Airlines will provide us with proper responses, and at the minimum, compensation for the lost bottle of Bushmills 10 year Single Malt Whiskey.

As seasoned international travelers we can understand a reasonable amount of delay on international flights during the summer season. Airplanes break down, parts are not readily available, technical problems arise, luggage misses connections (and sometimes gets lost) and stormy weather happens! However, what happened to us (and all of the passengers) on board Austrian Airlines Flight 859 (Vienna to Tel Aviv) on 14 July 2011 is in our opinion the absolute worst travel experience we have had in our lives. And trust us when we say that we have a few really bad travel experiences under our belts!

Here’s the story:

We arrived at Vienna International Airport at 1830 hours in order to board our connecting Austrian Airlines Flight 859 (see below for original itinerary and copies of boarding passes). We proceeded to our gate D22 and after completing security procedures took our seats in the waiting area. N.B.: The time we spent in Gate D22’s waiting area was especially difficult for me, Ms. David-Ben-Rafael, as my first husband was murdered in a terrorist attack which the security services of the United States, Argentina, Spain and Israel have determined was carried out with the co-operation and support of the Islamic Republic of Iran. For me to have to sit in a closed gated area at such short distance from a plane flying to Teheran was not an easy thing to do. Perhaps you may consider recognizing that a bellicose situation exists between the State of Israel and the Islamic Republic of Iran and that for all concerned it would be better if gates for these two countries were separated by more than just a set of ropes!

We did not board our flight at 1930 hours as listed on our boarding passes but rather closer to 2030 – 2045 hours. Once on board the plane, due to the bad storm, we had to wait on the tarmac for a very long time. We were welcomed on board by a crew member who said: “Welcome to Austrian Airlines Flight OS 859 operated by Austrian Air with El AL Airlines code share.” We were all baffled by this comment from the flight crew and once on the ground none of us found any documentation proving that the Austrian Airlines Flight OS 859 is an EL AL Airlines code share flight. We were all left wondering what the point of that comment from the crew member was, but we have digressed. Returning to our story, as we sat on the tarmac, the captain of the plane did inform all of us passengers that the delay was caused by the direction of the storm, basically the plane could not take off because the eye of the storm was too close to the runway our plane needed to use. So we continued waiting on the tarmac, then suddenly there was a VERY loud clap of thunder and a flash of light, a long 10 minutes later the captain informed us that our plane had been hit by lightning and that we were waiting for technical crews on the ground to check the aircraft and clear it for takeoff. Somewhere around 2200 hours we were deplaned. This was not a simple process, as stairs and buses were needed. Just as a general comment we will note that there were several families traveling with small children, at least one heavily pregnant woman, and a passenger traveling with a physician and other medical personnel, no special provisions were made for deplaning them. We were never clearly told what the problem was with the plane other than being told that the direct lightning strike had incapacitated it and we needed to be transferred to another airplane.

We were taken to Gate D70 in the terminal building where we were NOT provided with any refreshment or water and were forced to wait close to an hour. From time to time cryptic updates were provided. Finally we were told that another identical plane had been found and that we would board it shortly. Around 2315 hours an announcement was made requesting those families who were traveling with children and others requiring special assistance should come forward so that they could board the plane. We were told that this plane would fly us to Tel Aviv. We believed the crew and in celebration decided to open one of our duty free purchases, a bottle of Bushmills 10 year Single Malt Whiskey, in order to celebrate the fact that finally we were on our way! However, once the families with children and those requiring special assistance to board were on the plane we encountered another delay of approximately 40 minutes. This delay, according to another announcement, was caused by the fact that a bird had flown into one of the engines and that a ground crew was working to clean the engine and clear the plane for takeoff. Immediately prior to the second general boarding, only because a large group of passengers had protested, we were provided with water bottles. By 2358 hours we were all on the second plane. On board the plane between 0000 hours and 0030 hours a series of announcements were made by the captain. Mind you the announcements only came because passengers began questioning the crew wondering why we still had not taken off. The announcements went like this: 1.We are still checking the plane to be sure that we are flight ready and that the bird in the engine has been completely removed and that there is no damage to the engine; 2. We are cleared for takeoff; 3. We are being towed to a hanger for additional checks; 4. We are not cleared for takeoff the ground crew has found damage to the engine which will require five to six hours to repair; 5. We are cleared for takeoff. And then finally the 6th announcement: due to concerns raised by some of the passengers we need to go back to the tarmac to allow them to deplane because they do not feel comfortable flying, and by the time they deplane the present crew will no longer be able to fly. So at 0055 hours the flight was canceled!!

We waited until a covered staircase and buses could be found and then we were taken back to Gate D 70. After another long wait we were informed that those passengers who had ordered kosher food would be receiving their meals. Passengers who had not ordered kosher food would receive a 6 Euro credit at McDonalds upon presentation of their boarding passes. No clear announcement about continuing service connecting flights or hotel accommodations was made until groups of individuals began approaching the few Austrian Airlines personnel who were still in the Gate D 70 area. At approximately 0130 hours we were told that there was nothing to be done about it, as there were no Austrian Airlines personnel available to arrange hotel accommodations for any of us and that we were to remain in the terminal area until 0500 hours when the Austrian Airlines Service Counter would reopen. The Austrian Airlines personnel did provide drinking water, blankets and pillows and then left us to spend what remained of the night spread out throughout the terminal area. We are left wondering if any of Austrian Airlines personal has ever been left stranded in such a manner.

The Austrian Airlines Service Counter did not reopen at 0500 hours. It began to reopen at 0520 hours by which point the passengers were showing serious signs of distress. One lone Austrian Airlines employee was sent out to tell us that her colleagues were aware of our plight and that once they completed their morning briefing they would be out to begin rerouting us and sending us on our way. This did not bode well with any of us passengers. We along with former Knesset Member and Brigadier General (reserves) Efraim Sneh, (who had commanded the medical unit for Operation Entebbe in 1976), were the first in line and we found ourselves painfully sandwiched between an increasingly less-than-patient group of passengers and the service counter. It would seem that our situation became increasingly humorous to the Austrian Airlines staff supervisor because as we handed one of the staffers an Israeli Diplomatic Passport, an Israeli Passport and boarding passes her supervising colleague upon seeing the Israeli Diplomatic Passport actually smirked, smiled and then in a loud voice said: “If all of you do not calm down we will be forced to close the counter!” We would say that was not a very helpful behavior or comment on her part. We do not understand why it was that the counter did not open on time and once open why it was that the staffers did not have prepared lists for the various connecting flights we were meant to board. After all we were also informed that Austrian Airlines staff had worked throughout the night to resolve our plight. We really do question the accuracy of that statement.

As we were processed and re-routed onto a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt we inquired about our open bottle of Bushmills and were told that it would not be a problem as we had not left the terminal building area. This information turned out to be completely incorrect. We were required to go through passport control yet again (so that we were stamped in and out of the EU without ever leaving the ground), we had extremely little time between receiving our rerouting at 0545 hours and take off at 0620 hours for our flight from Vienna to Frankfort. Security told us that we were unable to board the flight from Vienna to Frankfurt with the open bottle of Bushmills. We went to the nearby Austrian Airlines Service desk there (next to gate C32) where we asked to have one of our carryon pieces containing the Bushmills sent through as luggage. We were told that it was too late to check the carryon as luggage. We then requested that the service desk take the bottle and issue a receipt so that we could make a verifiable claim later. This request was also refused. We were told we must give the bottle to security so that it could be destroyed! With a few spare minutes left, we were the last passengers to board Lufthansa LH 1247. Our flight to Frankfurt was uneventful but we will note that Austrian Airlines had failed to inform Lufthansa that we had reserved kosher food on our original Austrian Airlines Flight 859 and so there was no food that we could eat. We wish to underline that the last food we had eaten was the Kosher meal from the flight around 0200 hours, and that no further food provisions were made for us.

Upon arriving in Frankfurt, we had another mad dash to passport control, where the passport control police officer was concerned about all of the stamps (dated 14 and 15 July 2011) in our passports. He inquired about this and when we responded that there had been a problem with the Austrian Airlines flight the night before, he merely nodded and stamped our passports again. Does this mean that even the passport control police officers are used to this type of stamping as a result of Austrian Airlines cancellations and delays? We then proceeded through security and boarded our flight Lufthansa LH 686 from Frankfort to Tel Aviv. We arrived in Tel Aviv at local time 1506 hours. A full 14 hours later than our original arrival time and a full 21 hours after our arrival at Vienna Airport for flight Austrian Airlines Flight OS 859.

In short, (and we beg your pardon and understanding for using this reference which is distasteful to all of us), we feel that the Anschluss Fluge (connecting flight service) related to Austrian Airlines Flight 859 was just as painful and unsuccessful as the Nazi Anschluss of Austria in 1938! As Jewish-Israelis we do realize that none of this was personal, it was ‘just’ very poor business and very poor customer relations on the part of Austrian Airlines and their crew at the their home port – Vienna International Airport.

We have kept the story focused on the grueling, stressful, painful and inconvenient events of 14-15 July 2011 and we are not going to expand upon the following other than to note the facts:

1. Austrian Airlines Flight 858 on 4 July 2011 left Tel Aviv with a delay of over an hour. No explanations were offered by the crew or the captain of the aircraft, a brief apology was offered in flight. We barely made our continuing connection to Krakow (code share: Austrian Airlines Flight 8509 operated by LOT Polish National Airlines). We arrived in Krakow without our luggage and had to wait close to 24 hours for the luggage to be brought to us. The luggage arrived courtesy of the driver of our rental apartment because there was no proper delivery arrangement made by the land crews at Krakow Airport.

2. We are thankful to Austrian Airlines and Lufthansa Airlines ground staff at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel for correcting the error made by our travel agent and for providing us with kosher meals on our flights on 4 July 2011.

3. We enjoyed the discounted entry tickets to museums in Vienna which we were able to purchase thanks to having read in the Austrian Airlines flight magazine that our “OS” boarding passes provide discounted entry to many Viennese museums.

4. We are thankful to the Lufthansa Airlines ground crew at the Frankfort Airport Gate C13 who made a valiant, yet unsuccessful, effort to secure kosher meals for us. We are thankful to the Lufthansa Airlines stewardess onboard Flight LH 686 who, realizing that due to the fact that we keep Kosher we could not eat the food on board, made the extra effort to provide us with a snack of fresh fruits and light beverages. The kind courtesy and understanding of the Lufthansa team in these matters is greatly appreciated.

Now that we have shared our traumatic story we would greatly appreciate the kindness of a prompt response from you, as well as at the very least reimbursement* in the amount of Euro 33.50 for the Bushmills Single Malt Whiskey 10 year bottle that we were forced to discard by security at Vienna Airport prior to boarding the Lufthansa LH 1247 flight to Frankfurt.

Thanking you in advance for your prompt attention to these matters.

Sincerely yours,

Signatures

*though we really would prefer the delivery of a replacement bottle, duty free, to us here in Israel!

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