Dec 21, 2012

Emirates customer care attacked by delayed passengers

Complaints about Emirates treatment of stranded passengers raises doubts about what will happen to Qantas passengers when the two airlines enter a partnership.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

Two travellers whose Emirates flight to New York was cancelled mid-journey because of superstorm Sandy are in a serious dispute with the airline over their experience of its customer care standards, which appear to be much lower than those of Qantas, which will be its partner airline from 1 April.

When Qantas passengers who have started their journeys are disrupted by major natural disasters like route closures caused by volcanic ash or the snowstorms that affected London bound flights in 2010 the airline provides accommodation, meals and some other assistance until they can either continue their travels or return to Australia and have their fares and incidental costs refunded.

It is a standard of care that differentiates Qantas from many airlines, and whenever it is applied to stranded passengers the costs to Qantas are substantial.

In their joint letter of complaint the two travellers say that they departed Sydney on 28 October and on arrival in Dubai were informed that because of Hurricane Sandy their onward flight had been cancelled and they would be accommodated in Dubai until a resumption of services to NYC on 1 November.

But several hours later both travellers were awoken, in the middle of the night, and told the following:

  • All flights to NYC in the foreseeable future had been cancelled as the anticipated hurricane impact was worsening.
  • All NYC airports were likely to be closed for an extended period, possibly weeks.
  • Emirates was no longer willing to pay for our stay in Dubai whilst awaiting the first available flight to NYC.  If we continued to stay in the hotel where they placed us we would have to pay the bill for all expenses incurred after 48 hours of our initial check-in time.  Emirates wanted us to depart for an alternative US destination ASAP. Options they gave us were:

1)   Fly to San Francisco at 8am that morning (less than 8 hours away)

2)   Fly to Washington DC at 8am that morning (less than 8 hours away)

3)   Fly to Dallas at 2am that morning (less than 2 hours away)

The Emirates staff member also advised us that should we choose to fly to Washington DC (the closest location to NYC), the flight would likely be cancelled and he could not guarantee the outcome of that decisions – i.e. we would likely find ourselves significantly out of pocket in terms of accommodation expenses if we had to remain in Dubai.

We were given no time to consider our options and were advised that if we wanted to make it on to one of these flights (the only three options provided to us), we had to tell him there and then – in the middle of the night, half asleep. We advised him that we needed time to research other options and the financial implications of this. For example, we needed to research the actual weather forecasts in order to verify the Emirates staff member’s claims that airports would be closed for a matter of weeks. We also needed to investigate the cost of accommodation at the hotel in which we were staying. He advised that he did not know the cost of accommodation and that was an issue between ourselves and the hotel, however he would not allow us the time to query this with hotel staff.

Under the circumstances, worried that we may end up with a significant bill in Dubai, we opted for the flight to Dallas.

The travellers drove from Dallas to NYC in five days, choosing the least costly rented car available, and modest accommodation, and meals, in the expectation that Emirates would meet those costs totaling $US 1649, for which receipts were kept and forwarded with a request for reimbursement.

We are bewildered that Emirates has acted the way they did, when they scared us into flying to an alternative US destination and shortening our stay in Dubai.

We feel that Emirates made use of our vulnerable position in not having access to any information we needed to assess the situation and properly consider our options.

This was the substance of the letter from Emirates in response to their complaint and request for reimbursement for costs incurred in completing their flight to New York.

Emirates wishes to apologise for the inconvenience you experienced due to the cancellation of flight EK203 from Dubai to New York, on 30 October 2012.

Flight delays and other service interruptions (caused by poor weather, air traffic delays, etc.), though regrettable, are unavoidable occurrences in travel of which Emirates has no control.

Although every effort is made to achieve on-time departures, which is an integral part of our product, there are occasions when flights are delayed due to unforeseen circumstances. The safety and security of our customers and staff is of paramount importance to Emirates, and we are sure you will concur with this position.

I can appreciate the disappointment and discomfort you experienced. Although we cannot change what has happened, I would like to take this opportunity to assure you that the events you have detailed are isolated ones, and not indicative of the level of service that we strive to offer our customers.

May I assure you that your feedback with regard to the service attitude of our staff and the overall handling of this incident has been forwarded to the relevant Senior Manager concerned for his review and necessary action.

Regrettably, as the circumstances of this cancellation were beyond Emirates control, we are unable to offer any service recovery.  We, at Emirates, understand that this does not fully resolve your claim; therefore we recommend that you contact your Travel Insurers who may be able to assist you with regard to the additional expenses incurred.

Thank you for writing to us and allowing me to respond. We look forward to welcoming you and onboard our flights again.

All of the above correspondence has been edited for length and the removal of names.

Emirates was approached by Crikey on 10 December and given copies of the correspondence. Today Crikey was told that the Customer Service response dismissing the request for reimbursement was the official resolution  of the matter and that there was no comment or further action that could be taken.

The two travellers who remain in New York say that they have not been contacted by the airline since their request for reimbursement of expenses was refused.

While the matters between the two travellers and Emirates have nothing to do with Qantas, it has been asked to clarify the question of standard of customer care in the event of service disruptions to passengers who are part way to their destinations as Qantas customers booked on Emirates flights under the business partnership expected to start on 1 April.

It is understood that Qantas may not be able to respond immediately, but whatever its response, it will be published here or in a new post referencing this article.

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6 thoughts on “Emirates customer care attacked by delayed passengers

  1. DrStoat

    Two words: travel insurance.

  2. Nick Brodie

    Airlines’ duty of care only goes so far, “acts of God” notwithstanding….
    Perfect argument for ensuring you check you fare type before travelling to ensure that you’re comfortable with those conditions of carriage and always, always, always take out travel insurance.
    But Ben, I am puzzled at your dig at Qantas here because if you did a granular analysis of every airline Qantas, or in fact any airline, has agreements with you will find vastly differing treatment of stranded passengers.
    Seems to me my reading of the situation Emirates offered a reasonable solution.
    Ermirates may be many things but it cannot control a natural disaster nor can they determine when a foreign country can reopen their airport. Their duty of care does not extend into perpetuity.

  3. Ben Sandilands

    There is no criticism of Qantas. It sets an exceptional standard of passenger care in the event of a disruption to part-flown itineraries.

    The question is whether or not that standard will be diminished for Qantas customers flying on Emirates aircraft under the partnership.

    Whether or not Emirates is correct in giving one guarantee to its customers and then breaking it after several hours in the middle of the night and seeking choices from them concerning alternatives they had not previously contemplated is something else.

  4. slanger2

    If I recall correctly, by 28 Oct the storm was known, warnings issued and its path and effect well publicised, at least in the US. Anyone departing from Australia to New York on that date should have expected significant delays and disruptions, assuming they did the most basic of checks of weather and news for New York or the US EAST coast prior to departure.

  5. Rais

    Living in Perth I would be on Emirates all the way even with a Qantas ticket. If I were on a Qantas ticket wouldn’t I be contacting Qantas rather than Emirates to deal with the problem? The solution would then have to be worked out by Qantas with emirates.

  6. FlyLo

    Ben, EU rules oblige airlines to provide passenger care – but not compensation – when flights are cancelled by “extraordinary circumstances” beyond their control.

    These rules apply to all European airlines and to all airlines whose flights commence or end in the European Union (which includes Qantas flights to London and Frankfurt).

    The rules require that passengers are provided with meals and accommodation for disruptions such as the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption.

    You may have seen that in May 2012 Ryanair lost its battle in the European Court of Justice to avoid paying these costs.

    I was on separate British Airways flights affected by both the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in April 2010 as well as the snow storm in London just before Christmas 2010. On both occasions, British Airways service was incredible.

    I was en route to London from Sydney on BA10. When the plane landed at Bangkok we were told European airspace was closed. We were put up in a hotel, all meals paid for as well as a daily telephone and internet allowance. I was there for three nights and agreed to return to Sydney on Qantas at no extra cost as it was not known when European airspace would re-open.

    BA gave me an open-dated ticket to travel to London from Sydney at any time within the following 12 months.

    With the snow closure of Heathrow just before Christmas 2010, my flight to Sydney on 18 December was cancelled and I was offered a full refund or a change to a later flights. I elected for a flight whenever there was availability and was put on a flight on 23rd December in business class arriving at Sydney early morning on Christmas day. I couldn’t have asked for more!

    I remember during the volcanic eruption, many people from Australia were stranded in Singapore and Hong Kong where they slept at the airport. I recall one of the reasons for this was that these people hadn’t had their European flights interrupted. They had boarded flights to Asia where there was then a change of plane and flight number. There is no obligation under the EU rules until you are on a European airline (such as BA) or already on a flight to Europe which is interrupted by (in this case) the volcano.

    If the airline wasn’t European and the journey to Europe not yet commenced, I understood that there was strictly no obligation to provide compensation to passengers. Hence, all the passengers sleeping at the terminals in Singapore and Hong Kong.

    Whilst I agree that the level of service recovery on BA (and Qantas) due to the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption was excellent, both airlines had a responsibility under EU rules to provide passenger care.

    I remember Emirates also provided excellent care to its passengers stranded in Dubai because of the European airspace closure too. I recall Tim Clark being interviewed saying how much it was costing Emirates. With so many flight to Europe from Dubai it must have caused chaos for Emirates. They put up passengers in hotels even though they strictly may not have had any obligation to do so under EU rules as the flight to Europe was not interrupted – just cancelled.

    I understand there is no equivalent to the EU rules for airlines to provide passenger care on flights to the US when flights are cancelled by “extraordinary circumstances” beyond their control. I can understand an airline not providing such care where there is no requirement in law for them to do so.

    I couldn’t believe the exploitative behaviour of some of my fellow BA passengers in Bangkok who wanted BA to compensate them for everything, even paying for vaccinations for some passengers for the unexpected stopover in Bangkok and paying for disposable nappies for families with young children because “we spent all our money when we were on holiday”. One loud presumably Eastern Suburbs Sydney couple demanded BA fly them to Tuscany because if they were going to be forced to stop over they would rather it was somewhere more agreeable than Bangkok!

    So my sympathies are somewhat with the airlines in these circumstances. Travel insurance should be the answer. I wouldn’t think of not insuring my house and contents or my car. I certainly don’t travel without insurance either. It is fine if people chose not to, but then they take the risk if things go wrong.

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