Winter Weather Delays: Stuck in Frankfurt

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I’ve spent so much time at the Frankfurt airport over the past two days.  Looks like I can finally fly to Madrid!

By now, I was supposed to be back in Spain, and writing gushy blog posts about how much I love that country.  This should have been my second morning waking up in Madrid, and my second evening running around the city taking photos of Madrid’s beautiful architecture, stuffing myself with Galician cheese and churros with chocolate, and drowning myself in Spanish rosado.  But instead I am sitting in the Frankfurt airport, waiting to (finally) board a flight to Spain.  It has been two long days. And thanks to my ability to solve travel problems, I am actually getting out of here tonight.

In a nutshell, a crazy winter storm closed the Frankfurt airport on Sunday.  My Lufthansa flight from Los Angeles, aboard beautiful Airbus 390, arrived on time.  But shortly after, the snow began to fall.  My flight from Frankfurt to Madrid still showed on time, and after a brief delay, we boarded.  By then the snow was falling fast and accumulating on the ground.  For nearly four hours we sat on the tarmac, with limited information. This was not the flight crew’s fault, as they were not provided with any information as to when we would depart.  We were told that the airport was closed, but would reopen soon.  Once the airport reopened, we were informed that several flights were waiting to take off, and that we would soon be given a spot in the queue.  But after what seemed like an eternity, the flight attendants explained that the deicing machines were totally backed up and would not get to our plane to deice it.  As such, our flight was cancelled. We all reluctantly went back to the terminal.  By this time, it was night and I knew I was stuck in Germany at least overnight.

Being a professional, I knew exactly what to do in this situation. I quickly booked myself a hotel since I have travel insurance, and knew, since the delay was due to weather, the airlines might not be wiling to compensate.  After a transatlantic flight, I was not in the mood to sleep at the airport.  I also found confirmed space for myself on a direct flight two days later, and knew that I needed to call to have it held.  At least I had something confirmed, and I could get creative with looking for earlier flights later that evening.  But having confirmed space in these situations is gold.

After over three hours, I finally spoke with customer service. But since all of the flights were cancelled, they could not give anyone a firm rebooking for the next day.  Instead I was told to call the next day.   Again, I was so thankful to have something confirmed, even though it was a few days later. I was also grateful that I travel with SIM cards and a Skyroam device, because I very well knew that not everyone would have the ability to make calls overseas from their cell phone, and that this would be necessary to rebook as soon as possible.  And my inklings were spot on, I was on the phone a lot for the next 48 hours.

My luggage was not retrievable that night either.  So I want to the hotel I booked with just my carry on, thanking myself for bringing an extra change of clothes and my emergency toiletries.

That evening, I proactively pulled out all of my professional tools, checked live availability, and called Lufthansa to have space, that I found, held the next day for anything out of Frankfurt, even with a connection.  I also waitlisted myself for every direct flight to Madrid the next day.  At this point, I was so thankful that I knew what to do and had the tools and skills at my disposal to do it.  By 1am, in addition to the confirmed flight two days later, I was holding space on several flights with connections.

The next morning, bright and early, I went to the airport to play the waitlist game and look for my bag.  My bag was still very lost in a sea of 10,000s of bags, and none of the waitlists were looking good.  Although I had a flight to Lisbon that evening, connecting to Madrid the next day, I decided to try to get creative again with options to get me to Madrid sooner.  None of the waitlists were looking good, and I really wanted to get to Spain! The only space on anything I could find (on my own, not with the help of Lufthansa) was an Alitalia flight to Rome connecting to an Iberia flight to Madrid.   That flight was leaving very soon.

Since I can not actually rebook myself, I immediately got on the phone with Lufthansa’s outsourced customer service.  This time they were terrible, and that would set the tone for dealing with Lufthansa’s phone based customer service.  They were horribly trained, incompetent, and couldn’t solve a problem if their lives depended on it.  They managed to make it worse by accidentally canceling my confirmed space to Madrid via Lisbon that night (and could not get it back since by then that was waitlisted).  By the time I nearly lost it with them, the flight to Rome was departing and I decided it was not in my best interest to fly two non partner airlines, still not knowing where my luggage was. Waiting it out in Frankfurt would be best.  I had a bad feeling about an Alitalia connection to Iberia in Rome, and (flight-wise) being stranded in Frankfurt is better than being stranded in Rome.  Of course, I would have preferred to be in Italy, but I was not sightseeing, I was madly working to get to Spain.

Since none of the waitlists looked good, I decided to just go back to the hotel, spend another night there, and take the flight the next evening that I had booked myself on that was direct to Madrid.  I also still needed to track down my luggage, and did not really want to depart without it. The manager of the hotel treated me with so much kindness and did not give me the travel agent rate, but instead the employee rate.  Therefore I paid about 30% of the room cost to the general public.  I am not sure if he was supposed to do that, as the travel agent rate is usually what they offer, but I think he took pity on me.

My tiny airport hotel room became my travel agent command center. So many more calls were made to ensure that the space on the direct flight I booked myself on was confirmed. And the game to find my luggage went into full swing.  Many calls to Lufthansa’s lost luggage center were made.  Again, I was so thankful that I had a cost efficient and inexpensive way to use my mobile phone abroad.  Finally, I made sure to get some real sleep too, as I was exhausted from the ordeal and the transatlantic flight.

This morning I went back to the airport with new found confidence.  I was so happy I thought ahead and rebooked myself on confirmed space for two days later, because the check in agent told me all the flights for today were quickly waitlisted too.  Had I not done that, I probably would not get to Spain for another 24-48 hours.  I was one of the lucky ones, holding a boarding pass for a confirmed seat.  The next step was to find my luggage.  The in house Lufthansa baggage staff treated me with such kindness, and proactively solved the problem.  Within about 30 minutes, I was reunited with my bag.  Then I went to recheck it for my Madrid flight, and again, the agent treated me with nothing but kindness and gave me food vouchers since my flight was not for hours.  Lufthansa’s Frankfurt airport staff are amazing!

So here I am, at the Frankfurt airport, blogging, and waiting for my flight to (finally) depart to Madrid.  If all goes well, I will be in Spain very soon, and in my happy place.

But there was so much that I learned and that I am thankful for from this experience.

Firstly, I am so thankful that I had the professional skills to deal with this.  The only reason that I am getting out tonight, and not tomorrow (or even the next day) is because I proactively looked for space and rebooked myself.  Had I relied on Lufthansa’s horrific outsourced customer service phone line, I don’t know when I would have arrived in Madrid.  I am also incredibly thankful for my network of professional agent friends who accessed the live availability when I could not.  Again, if I had relied on outsourced Lufthansa agents to do this, who know when I would have been rebooked. In these cases, you have to be proactive and can not expect the airline to take care of you right away, as they have tens of thousands of other stranded passengers.

I am also relieved that I take my own advice and always buy travel insurance.  Two nights hotel, food, and transportation in Germany were not at all cheap.  Travel insurance will cover all of this.  And having the means to call Lufthansa and their baggage center, pretty much unlimitedly, without paying 50 cents a minute, really saved me.   I think I was on the phone for a total of over six hours (with hold times).

I also realized just how important and necessary my business is!  Everyone really needs a professional on their side when things don’t go right.  Using a travel agent and a professional travel consultant is so essential.  We can do everything in our power to ensure that your journey goes as smoothly as possible.  And in the case that things go sour, we can help, or at least provide you tips to make sure you can get to your destination as soon as possible.

Weather delays happen.  As a traveler, this was not the first time I was impacted by bad weather and certainly will not be the last time.  The airlines can not be faulted for this.  But how the airlines handle it makes a big difference.  With one exception, everyone I spoke with, and everyone who helped me at Lufthansa’s in-house (not outsourced) staff were amazing.  Helpful and empowered to fix the problem creatively.  Contrary, and unfortunately, everyone I spoke with at Lufthansa’s outsourced call centers was terrible, unhelpful, and (in some cases) made the problem worse.  While it might be more expensive, companies should always provide in-house customer service, instead of outsourcing.  People who work for the company have a stake in the company and want to do their best (and in many cases go above and beyond) to resolve issues, no matter how complicated or how long it takes.  Outsourced employees are not empowered and (in many cases) are simply not given the tools or resources to resolve problems.  I really wish that all companies, especially travel companies, understood this.

Since Lufthansa’s in-house employees were so wonderful, despite being stuck in Frankfurt for two nights, Lufthansa is still my preferred airline to Europe.

A little poorer (but I eventually will be reimbursed through my travel insurance), and quite ragged (I did not have access to my products in my checked bag for two nights), I really think I am finally on the way to Madrid in a few hours.  I really hope so, because I have been dying to go back to my other home base in Spain since I left it in June!