European Airline Customer Service – a Chicken vs Egg Thing?

This is a tale of three airlines with three different airline customer service nightmares: delays, cancellations, and missed connections. One occurred in the US while the other two happened in Europe. Looking back on each situation it makes me wonder which came first – horrible European airline customer service or extremely low expectations by European passengers?

Is this a Chicken vs Egg situation?

Which came first? Bad customer service or really low expectations?

Tale #1: The Creeping Delta Delay

One beautiful Sunday morning in October, I arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport with plenty of time before my 1:00 pm departure for the quick flight to Chicago. Since I fly standby on Delta Airlines, I gave myself plenty of options to get to Chicago before my Monday morning meeting with the French Consulate.

Sitting at gate C24, I hear a boarding announcement for a delayed flight to Chicago’s Midway Airport now boarding at Gate C11.

Hmmmm,” I wonder. “Maybe I should make a run for it and see if there’s a seat available?” Just then the gate agent at C24 makes an announcement requesting volunteers for my intended flight, so I sprint to gate C11.

I arrive at gate C11 just the last passengers are boarding and get the LAST SEAT! As I stow my carry on bag, the captain makes an announcement regarding a mysterious dent in the aircraft fuselage that needs investigating. (Damn!)

A short time later, we deplane.

The passengers gather in the gate area, eat snacks and fresh, hot pizza while watching the Vikings vs Green Bay on TV. The gate agent calmly answers questions and makes announcements every 15 minutes with any updates on the delay, even if there is nothing new to report.

Vikings vs Packers. Flight delay entertainment.
Flight delay entertainment provided by the Vikings.

A few hours later, the flight changes to a different aircraft at a different gate. So, we make the trek to gate C13 (with one en route stop at the bar) and wait for the new plane scheduled to arrive from Raleigh, North Carolina.

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Except it doesn’t arrive. Maintenance.

Once again, snack carts roll through the gate area offering treats to the delayed passengers. The gate agents make frequent announcements with delay updates. “The Raleigh plane isn’t coming but we’ve got another one!

Unfortunately, the newest plane needs a part and a mechanic. Both of these are arriving from Atlanta, we’re told.

At this point, some passengers begin to flip out. It’s now nearly 8:00 pm and many have been at the airport for almost 12 hours. One woman demands the name and cell phone number of the CEO. The gate agent (new on the scene after a shift change) handles the verbal abuse calmly and professionally. She diffuses the potentially ugly situation.

After spending 20 years working for Northwest Airlines, I have flashbacks to the annual customer service training we received. This agent has obviously had similar training and expertly controls what could’ve been an ugly gate area brawl.

And then comes the final straw: “I’m sorry to make this announcement, but the aircraft needs some further testing and your flight will now be delayed until tomorrow morning at 7:45 am.”

At this point, I walk away so I’m not sure if any fistfights broke out. If so, I’m confident she could handle it. (It was an ugly delay but handled very professionally.)

After spending 10 hours at the airport, I book a ticket on American Airlines the next morning at 5:00 am and make the brief 55-minute flight to Chicago.

Chicago Midway Airport train into downtown Chicago.
Chicago Midway – almost there!

Tale #2: The Easy Jet Cancellation

After spending a nearly a month in the US getting my French visa sorted out, I was so ready to get out. One evening, feeling confident my passport would arrive in the mail the following day, I made plans to fly Delta (standby) from Minneapolis to Amsterdam and then connect to Easy Jet to Nice.

So, I book the flight on Easy Jet with the stipulation that I can cancel within 24 hours. The following morning, my passport arrives and my escape plan is set. Except now the Minneapolis to Amsterdam flight is full. So, I pull up the Easy Jet website to cancel the flight to Nice since chances of getting on the Amsterdam flight look pretty bleak.

But there is no way to cancel! I’m an experienced traveler, but find it impossible to find the secret link on the Easy Jet website to cancel my flight! I try calling but it’s outside of their business hours. I try the online chat, but that’s also available only during business hours.

As a last resort, I use their generic “Contact Us” email form and ask them to cancel my flight. The response: “We’ll get back to you in 7 to 14 business days with an answer.” Gee, thanks.

So, a few hours before the Amsterdam flight is departing I decide to roll the dice and take my chances.  Surprisingly, I score the last seat on the flight (my favorite middle seat in coach) and arrive in Amsterdam with plenty of time to connect to Easy Jet.

After checking my bags with Easy Jet, I linger in the lounge area and sip some coffee, so relieved to almost be home to Nice.

View of Nice coastline from Castle Hill.
Beautiful Nice!

Finally, boarding time! I cram my purse into my carry-on backpack (as required by Easy Jet’s ridiculous carry-on policy) and approach the boarding pass scanner. My boarding pass does NOT beep but the buzz sets off an alert. They need to investigate so I step to the side.

“Your reservation has been canceled. We will remove your checked bags and you can collect them by carousel 22.”

WTF?? I plead with the gate agent and point out that I HAD CHECKED MY BAGS and there was not a problem. Please just rebook me!!

She is a robot. There is not a hint of emotion in her steely eyes. This robot was born without a heart or a soul.

European airline customer service
Robot Gate Agent

I can see the plane. I can almost touch the plane. That plane is going to Nice – without me. The reality of the situation hits me and I almost cry but I’m just too damn tired.

So, accepting defeat, I walk away in shock and collect my bags at carousel 22. But I still have one question: Whoever responded to my email much quicker than the promised “7 to 14 days” must have seen that I had checked my bags. WHY would they cancel it?

I approach the Easy Jet supervisor in the baggage area and calmly pose this question, and there is NO hint of customer service. There is no apology for “the situation”. I’m met with nothing but defensiveness and another frustrating example of European airline customer service.

Realizing I’m wasting my precious energy, I walk away. I find a cheap motel and book myself on the direct Eurowings flight the following morning; a “direct” flight with A CONNECTION IN HAMBURG!

(In US airline lingo, THAT is a connecting flight…)

Tale #3: The Eurowings Near Miss

After a McDonald’s dinner and 12 hours of sleep in a cheap Amsterdam motel, I wake ready to resume the battle – the battle to get home to Nice. I arrive at the Eurowings baggage counter just as they’re opening, check my bags and go in search of coffee.

It’s nearing boarding time so I make my way to the departure gate and notice the flight is going to Prague. I check the flight monitor for the Nice flight: delayed from 8:25 am to 8:55 am. No problem – I can still make my connection to Nice!

And then it changes again: a 9:30 am departure. I take a seat in the gate area, and not one announcement is made regarding the delay – which now appears to be creeping.

Where’s the plane? When is it arriving? What is our REAL estimated departure? What about connections? NOTHING. 

But the passengers just sit there like this is normal! They appear totally unconcerned at the lack of information. I wonder, “Am I really the only one who cares?”

Finally, I just can’t take the suspense any longer and approach the gate agents. I calmly explain that I had an hour connection in Hamburg and we now have at least an hour delay. There is no reaction or empathy. Once again, no human emotions are visible.

I ask the agent about rebooking and she tells me I need to do that in Hamburg. When I ask about rebooking on other airlines, she assures me they’ll use any “Star Alliance” carriers.

So, I take a deep breath and prepare for a long day of hopping around Europe.

We finally depart Amsterdam over an hour late. As I’m boarding, the gate agent “helpfully” suggests I check with the flight attendants on board for updates on my connecting gate. So, as we approach Hamburg, I ring for a flight attendant (which I NEVER do) and ask if she could possibly check on THE FLIGHT TO NICE.

“You’ll have to check the flight monitors in the gate area,” is her robotic response.

We finally arrive in Hamburg and pull into a hard stand (no jetway). It’s now after the scheduled departure time for my flight to Nice and I figure I’ll be spending a night in Germany.

We deplane down the truck stairs, across the ramp, and up the stairs to the arrival gate. The sign for the next departure from that gate: “Nizza”. NICE!


The robotic flight attendant who told me to check the monitors in the gate area for information on my flight to Nice WAS ON MY FLIGHT TO NICE! Did she just forget where she was going?

Or is this just another example of stellar European airline customer service? Is it just the European budget airlines where you get what you pay for? Do passengers accept bad service so airlines provide bad service?

After all those years working in airline customer service I wonder, am I just expecting too much?

View of the Alps en route to Nice.
En route to Nice – finally!

Chicken photo credit: Photo by H is for Home on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC

Vikings Photo by Tiger Girl on VisualHunt / CC BY

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4 Replies to “European Airline Customer Service – a Chicken vs Egg Thing?”

  1. I love that… Did she just forget where she was going? I have a feeling the low cost flight attendants probably don’t know where they are going and just end up for the night in one of their various hubs. I know an Easyjet flight attendant. We’ll ask her. 🙂

    1. It’s crazy to think that the crew landing in Hamburg didn’t know what their next leg was? How is that even possible? Maybe I need to delete all memory of my 20 years in aviation! 🙂

  2. Did you feel like you were in the Twilight Zone????
    OMG……..I tell you every single time I fly now I mentally think
    about what I would/should do in case of long delay/cancel/miscon.
    We are really at the mercy of the airline. Ach du Lieber.
    I’m glad you made it back (finally)

    1. Yes, it was kind of a Twilight Zone sort of day. It was quite a battle but was so good to finally get home!

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