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Some airlines suck, others don’t

23 April 2020

It is often said that the true customer service ethos of a company becomes visible in difficult times. And when it comes to travel, we are currently living in very difficult times indeed. Like millions of other people, I have had to cancel several trips this spring, and the way those cancellations were handled will certainly influence my choices when travel becomes possible again.

Exhibit 1: Iberia. This is an airline I have criticised heavily in the past, even to the point of acquiring the domain after a cancelled flight in 2015. But living in Spain, it is impossible to avoid it, and so in mid-February we bought tickets from Alicante via Madrid to Puerto Rico for my wife and daughter to go there for a family event in early April. As the various shutdowns mounted but before the flights had been formally cancelled, Iberia sent me various e-mails offering first a voucher for other flights, good until the end of the year, later improved to be valid until 31 March 2021. At some point in March the flights were finally cancelled, and Iberia sent me the voucher offer yet again. They also made it very easy to get the voucher: all one had to do was go to their web site, fill in a simple form, and the voucher would be issued immediately. But I did not want a voucher; I wanted a refund. The amount involved was substantial, about 1100 Euro, and I preferred the money to a voucher which I might or might not use. The catch, however, was that to get the refund one had to phone Iberia’s customer service number, which of course was overloaded. After spending hours listening to music on the phone, I decided to contact Iberia via their Facebook page instead. And that worked very well. I sent them a message on 30 March, they replied the next day, and on 1 April I received confirmation of the refund by e-mail. Within the week the money was refunded to the credit card I had used to buy the tickets. So finally, not great but acceptable service here.

Exhibit 2: SAS. As I do every year, I was going to Denmark in April, and my sister, who lives in Poland, was going to join me there for a few days. I had bought her ticket from Poland to Denmark on SAS. Again, as was the case with Iberia, SAS initially offered me a voucher etc., but once the flight was cancelled, it was easy to apply for a refund online, and on 30 March I received a confirmation of that refund by e-mail. The next day and again about a week later SAS sent me apologetic e-mails in which they explained that due to the high number of cancellations it was taking longer than normal to process the refunds, but that I would get my money back eventually. A few days ago I got tired of waiting and contacted SAS via the chat function on their web site. I actually chatted with a human, not a bot, and I was told that on that day they were processing refunds from 11 March, meaning that it would be between 2 and 3 weeks before they got to 30 March and my refund. But I am confident that it will processed without any problems, so I will just be patient.

Exhibit 3: Ryanair. This is an airline with a reputation for bad service. I do not actually dislike them as much as some people do. Yes, it is a budget airline and the ambience on board is not great, but they have a good safety record and are quite punctual–their business model depends on that. And as with Iberia, given where I live, it is difficult to avoid Ryanair. And so for my own trip to Denmark (see above) I bought a Ryanair ticket to Copenhagen and a ticket back from Billund. I also booked a car rental via Ryanair. So when it became clear that I would not be travelling, but before Ryanair had cancelled the flights, I first cancelled the car rental. That was done online, without any fuss, and the deposit I had paid was credited promptly. But the flights…the cancellation finally was announced on 24 March, and as with the other airlines, Ryanair tried to get me to accept a voucher in which I was not interested. I asked for a refund (at least that could be done online too) and on 28 March I received an e-mail informing me that due to the high volume, the refunds would be long in coming etc. OK. But then, on 20 April, I receive, out of the blue, an e-mail from Ryanair with a voucher code! They are trying to trick me to accept some stupid voucher instead of a refund. I immediately tried calling their customer service–hopeless. I tried the chat on their web site–equally hopeless. I finally contacted them via Facebook, similarly to what I had done with Iberia. They reacted quickly and asked for the details of my cancelled reservation, which I provided, but now 2 days have passed and I have had no further communication from them. I am not sure if I will get my money back or will have to make do with the voucher–the amount is modest so financially it would not do much damage, but it is truly annoying and leads me to conclude that Ryanair sucks, well and truly.

So, of these three airlines, SAS wins for the best communication, Iberia wins for refunding my money the fastest, while Ryanair loses on both counts.

Update (August 2020)

SAS continued to stall by sending me apologetic e-mails from time to time, and in July they offered a voucher good for a year, even some extra incentives thrown in. But I wanted my money back, not a voucher, and finally, on 7 August, the money was refunded to my credit card, more than 4 months late.

Ryanair refunded one of my flights on 23 June. The other refund did not work using the link on their website, for reasons that escape me to this day. In the end, I ended up using that voucher for a flight in October. Keeping fingers crossed, obviously, given the 2nd wave of the epidemic we are having here in Spain.

So, the final ranking of these three airlines has to be revised a bit. Iberia still wins because they refunded the money quickly–in fact, it was the only one of the three airlines that gave me my refund within the timeframe foreseen in EU regulations. Ryanair still had the worst communications, but at least they refunded one of the two tickets in June–way too late, but much better than SAS. SAS is a disgrace: not only were they far slower than the other two airlines, but they were even the beneficiary of a state rescue package from the governments of Sweden and Denmark, so they certainly had the cash! I will not use them again if I can avoid it.






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