I don’t think I’ve ever been so uniquely miffed about anything to date — until I received this email from AirBerlin just a few days ago, notifying me that I had just become a statistic, just one of more than 100,000 victims of an insolvent airline in an already super-opaque industry.
Gambling on Airfares
For once, I had planned ahead in March of this year to book my travel for American Thanksgiving holidays. For those unfamiliar with American travel habits, the day before Thanksgiving is among the busiest travel days of the year in the U.S. So, planning ahead seemed like a smart thing to do in the Spring, since this year’s Thanksgiving will be the first time I travel from overseas for it.
In March, I was only starting to learn about which European airlines operate from which airports, and offer what services and for how much. Fortunately, from the south of The Netherlands, there are numerous options for long-haul international travels:
- Brussels-Zaventem is less than 1.5 hours by train or by auto
- Düsseldorf is 1.5 hours by auto, 2.5 hours by train
- Frankfurt Airport is 2.5 hours by auto, 3.5 hours by train
- For comparison: Amsterdam Airport Schipol is 2.5 hours by auto or by train (or 3.5 hours by train/bus, when there was construction ongoing)
Naturally, my early instinct was to jump on cheap flights first, and especially the non-stop ones. So, using my normal go-to booking tool, google.com/flights and its tracking feature, I discovered AirBerlin and its cheap flights, which I ended up booking. But then I learned all too late by May this year — after I had already booked more with AirBerlin, one short-haul European flight and another summertime long-haul flight to New York — that AirBerlin was already in deep water with its finances as of the end of 2016. So all I could do in the summer was hold my breath and wait.
Plane Crashes of a Different Kind
Once I received the first warning signal from AirBerlin — they started changing my November flight schedule (May), then added a stop (August), culminating in its complete cancellation (October) — I started to seek more information to understand my chances of losing my Thanksgiving itinerary — and money, of course. As it turns out, I made a terrible investment. AirBerlin was already reportedly in a downward spiral from 2014-2016, racking up over 1.2 billion euros in losses, well over its 68 million euro valuation.
Further, AirBerlin wasn’t the only company to file for bankruptcy. Alitalia of Italy filed in the summer also, and Monarch Airlines of the U.K. just filed as well. In fact, both AirBerlin and Alitalia were financially supported by Etihad Airways, based in Abu Dhabi. When Etihad withdrew its investments in both carriers, that’s when Germany’s 2nd largest carrier and Italy’s largest carrier both quickly floundered. The loss of financial backing became the so-called “final nail in the coffin” on these airlines it seems, in the context of already having difficulty competing with numerous other European airlines offering super-low fares.
So what now?
Even though AirBerlin claimed to continue their scheduled flights, the letter I received clearly indicates that it’s no longer possible. This is in spite of the possibility that Lufthansa might buy out part or some of AirBerlin.
For victims of Monarch’s abrupt stoppage of operations, there are fortunately some immediate resources available for people who have been left stranded, including some detailed instructions on how to contact the U.K. Government and Civil Aviation Authority, for example. It seems doubtful that this would remedy those in my type of situation, who have booked in advance of the actual travel though. For Monarch and Alitalia, perhaps the same is true as for AirBerlin, i.e. to await the opportunity to apply for reimbursement once legal proceedings move forward.
One other possibility is to make a claim through travel insurance. If you purchased travel insurance, whether you purchased it with your reservation, or externally through another entity (e.g. your bank or other Dutch insurer, credit card company, etc.), now would be a good time to read all that fine print. While the probability is low that there would be a clause for covering financial insolvency or “scheduled airline failure,” it’s still worth a shot to see if you have some independent avenue for getting your money back. I plan to pursue all of my possible options to claim my hundreds of euros spent on tickets for a now non-existent flight.
Take-home messages: Don’t buy airfare from an airline that’s on the brink of bankruptcy, no matter how cheap the flights are. It seems like of all industries, when it comes to air travel, there’s an above average chance that prices are too good to be true.