If You’re Going to Charge for Seat Assignments, Lufthansa, You Better Well Honor Them (Tales from the Field)

Lufthansa is probably the most hated airline in the travel agent world these days for a variety of reasons. It just started charging a surcharge for those who book through travel agent systems, first of all. But it’s also the random and never-ending strikes that have shaken confidence. I, however, am angry at Lufthansa for a different reason (well, you know, on top of the other ones). Last year Lufthansa started charging for all seat assignments in coach on lower fares, but it appears the airline isn’t always ensuring those assignments are honored. If you’re going to charge for seats, then you better damn well deliver (barring an aircraft change or something like that). For one of our clients, Lufthansa failed miserably and then kept piling on by lying and then refusing to try to solve the problem.

We have a mother and daughter, let’s call them Steffi and Heidi, traveling on a fantastic European trip right now. On the way out, they were on Lufthansa from Denver to Frankfurt and then on to Athens and Santorini. On the way back, they’re flying United. We issued their tickets back in May and they were each on their own reservations. The ticket wasLufthansa Tales From the Field a United ticket (had to pick one, so we went with United). That was the easy part. Then it came time for seats.

For Lufthansa’s flight out to Frankfurt, the options were a) buy a regular seat assignment for $35, b) buy a bulkhead/exit row seat for $100, or c) gamble and wait until check-in. After reviewing the options, Steffi and Heidi decided they wanted a bulkhead row and were willing to pay the $100 each.

Now, this can usually be done in our system, but we called Lufthansa to make sure this was possible since it was on a United ticket. If it were a United codeshare on a Lufthansa flight, you can’t pay for seats at all. (That’s really stupid but it’s a different issue.) Since this was a Lufthansa-marketed and operated flight, it was fine. The agent just processed the payment over the phone. Seats showed up in our system, even though they didn’t appear on Lufthansa’s website. But they confirmed everything was perfectly fine and it would show up during check-in. The seats showed as taken on the seat map so we didn’t think twice.

Fast forward to check-in. Steffi goes online and finds that she has been moved to a middle seat about 10 rows back. Heidi, however, somehow kept her seat. Unfortunately Heidi was the one sitting in the middle with Steffi on the aisle, so now both were scattered in random middle seats.

At this point, there was no way to truly fix the problem because Lufthansa had given the original seat away to someone else. But how the heck did this happen? Seats had been paid for. We had it confirmed on multiple occasions. Did Lufthansa just randomly decide to honor some seat assignments and not others?

I didn’t handle the original booking personally (someone else here did), but at this point I was the one trying to get it resolved. I called the Key Accounts support desk and ran into one of the more condescending agents I’ve ever spoken with. He told me that seats were never paid for and that was that. I didn’t have all the info in front of me at the time. I was just trying to get on the phone before the Key Accounts desk closed 5 minutes later. (This was a Friday night and it wouldn’t reopen until Monday.) With his absolute unwillingness to apparently even look in the reservation to find out what was actually going on, I knew I was out of luck there.

I moved on to the regular reservations line and found a tremendously helpful person who looked at it and said that she did see the payment in there and didn’t know what had happened. There wasn’t much she could do, but she said she documented the reservation to explain what happened so that the airport staff in Denver could do what they could to get them better seats. If they couldn’t do anything, then we should call back to get a refund.

I looked at the seat map and saw that there were some good seats that were blocked for airport-assignment only. Further, they don’t sell premium economy on this route yet but the particular airplane they were using had it onboard. Maybe the airport would apologize by putting them in those seats. After all, if they aren’t selling premium economy then they’re just moving coach passengers up there. Hopes were high that this would get resolved.

Those hopes were immediately crushed by unhelpful and lying airport staff. Upon check-in, the agents said that the seats weren’t paid for correctly. They said that the travel agent screwed it up. Regardless, it wasn’t Lufthansa’s fault at all. This was a classic case of an agent just not wanting to deal with a problem. By blaming someone else, they could wash their hands of the issue and move on.

The end result was that they refused to do anything to help them and made Heidi and Steffi feel like crap. They were able to get seats toward the back of the airplane together, but they were angry and confused. I would have been too. And I was livid that someone had the nerve to blame us when the seats were paid for directly with Lufthansa.

A couple days later, I called Lufthansa and got another good reservations agent. She at first said she couldn’t see the payment, but I gave her the ticket number (actually an EMD, for those who know what that is) and she found it straight away. She seemed confused, apologized, and then said she’d send it for refund processing right away.

I asked her if she’d seen this before. She paused, sighed, and said “yeah, I’ve seen it before.”

Airlines often say that seat assignments aren’t guaranteed. That’s fine until they start charging for them. If they’re going to charge for seats, then barring some major problem (cancellation, aircraft swap), they need to deliver. Had Lufthansa apologized and moved them up to better seats that were available, you probably wouldn’t be seeing this post. But the attitude of everyone outside of general reservations was very poor. Yes, the clients will get their money back, but they still don’t feel good about this. And neither do I.

Plenty of agencies are trying to book away from Lufthansa these days. This kind of thing is not going to help the airline’s cause.

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