Tuesday, 26 April 2016

No bar too low...

It doesn’t matter how low you set the bar, someone can generally get under it.

In my case, it was the Spanish airline Iberia. I had to get from Madrid to Lyon for work and, the way the timings worked out, I had to use the scheduled service rather than a low-cost one (or should that be lo-cost?)

Low-cost airlines are much maligned, not least by me. Anything they can charge for becomes chargeable: hold luggage, food, any changes in your travel arrangements (as Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary so forcefully put it, “what part of ‘no refund’ don't you understand?”) So having paid five or six times more for the Iberia flight than I had for the Easyjet one that got me to Madrid in the first place, I expected a somewhat higher level of service.

Boy, was I in for a shock.

Like most of the scheduled airlines, Iberia allows on-line check-in only from 24 hours before take-off. Since I was out until quite late on that day, I decided to check in at the airport instead. A scheduled airline naturally allows that.

As indeed I discovered it did. Except that, as I was going through the process, the woman behind the counter started to look a little pained.

“The plane is full,” she told me.

“Yes,” I said, “I find a lot of them are these days.”

“Yes, but this one is so full that there is no seat for you on it.”

Naïvely, I’d come to think we’d seen the last of that ghastly habit of overbooking. This is when an airline sells more tickets for a flight than it has seats, to ensure that its planes always fly full. It counts on people not showing up for the flight, to save its blushes.

The calculation failed for my flight. But Iberia didn’t seem to be blushing at all. In fact, the way their representatives talked made me feel that they regarded it as my fault that I held a ticket for a plane which they’d filled up after I’d paid for my place.

“There are no seats,” they kept telling me, as though I was dumb or deaf. Or possibly both.

My name was added to the waiting list. Number seven, which was pretty hopeless. Especially when it turned out that there’d been only three no-shows. By sheer good luck, however, the top four on the list insisted on travelling together: they all flew or none of them flew. They dropped out and suddenly I was bumped up to number three – and got the third, and last, available seat.

Snow-covered Pyrenees
But I found crossing them with Iberia less inspiring
So I made it successfully to Lyon. Which was more than could be said for my suitcase. Regular readers of this blog may recall that this happened to me before, just a couple of weeks ago. Again on a scheduled airline flight.

At the lost luggage office, it emerged that I wasn’t the only one. The young man ahead of me in the queue had had his suitcase held in Madrid for “security reasons.”

“Why’s mine been held?” I asked when it came to my turn.

“It says code 19,” explained the airport employee, “but unfortunately I have no idea what that means.”

“Ah, well,” I said, “at least we know it’s a nineteen. That’s better than knowing nothing at all.”

“Indeed, Monsieur,” he agreed, “I’m glad we got that one clear.”

His colleague wasn’t quite as blasé. “Nineteen means they screwed up,” he explained helpfully.

As it happened, that worked out well. I’d been debating whether to pop by the hotel to drop off my case before heading to my meeting, but now I didn’t have to. Iberia kindly held onto my case for the day, freeing me up to indulge in the luxury of sitting on a restaurant terrace in glorious sunshine and enjoying that inspired French institution, the ‘plat du jour’. This is the basic meal many restaurants serve between 12:00 and 2:00, in that properly civilised country where company staff still mostly have a proper lunch hour, with a proper lunch.

Still, I was glad to get the suitcase a few hours later. The burst of lunchtime sun had turned out to be a flash in the pan, and by the evening, I needed a pullover again.

The experience overall leaves me bemused about Iberia. Especially in comparison the low-cost operators.

After all, whatever their faults, they get the essentials right. You may not be able to cancel tickets, but I’ve never been denied travel once I’ve bought a ticket (to be fair, I'm told others have been less lucky...). They mostly take off on time and land on time. Their safety record’s good. So far, not a single low-cost flight I’ve taken has lost my bag.

If only the grand old high-cost airlines could match that standard.


Aries Cottrell said...

I understand that David. But let me tell you, it is not just the little airlines. A quick story to share. My brother who is legally blind was set to preboard on a major airline (won't name it at this point because he is seeking compensation from the airline) he was told to step aside so wheelchair and mum's with babies could get on. He was then denied preboarding altogether, they just kept telling him to step aside. Finally after some discussion he was told he could board but not his travel companion. Uhm... travel companion to assist a legally blind person? Honestly I do not travel much and the stories I hear make me think twice about doing more of it!

David Beeson said...

Thanks for sharing the story – and what happened to him is just awful. At least I could just laugh at my minor misfortune.