If You’re Going to Charge for Seat Assignments, Lufthansa, You Better Well Honor Them (Tales from the Field)

Lufthansa, Tales From the Field

Lufthansa is probably the most hated airline in the travel agent world these days for a variety of reasons. It just started charging a surcharge for those who book through travel agent systems, first of all. But it’s also the random and never-ending strikes that have shaken confidence. I, however, am angry at Lufthansa for a different reason (well, you know, on top of the other ones). Last year Lufthansa started charging for all seat assignments in coach on lower fares, but it appears the airline isn’t always ensuring those assignments are honored. If you’re going to charge for seats, then you better damn well deliver (barring an aircraft change or something like that). For one of our clients, Lufthansa failed miserably and then kept piling on by lying and then refusing to try to solve the problem.

We have a mother and daughter, let’s call them Steffi and Heidi, traveling on a fantastic European trip right now. On the way out, they were on Lufthansa from Denver to Frankfurt and then on to Athens and Santorini. On the way back, they’re flying United. We issued their tickets back in May and they were each on their own reservations. The ticket wasLufthansa Tales From the Field a United ticket (had to pick one, so we went with United). That was the easy part. Then it came time for seats.

For Lufthansa’s flight out to Frankfurt, the options were a) buy a regular seat assignment for $35, b) buy a bulkhead/exit row seat for $100, or c) gamble and wait until check-in. After reviewing the options, Steffi and Heidi decided they wanted a bulkhead row and were willing to pay the $100 each.

Now, this can usually be done in our system, but we called Lufthansa to make sure this was possible since it was on a United ticket. If it were a United codeshare on a Lufthansa flight, you can’t pay for seats at all. (That’s really stupid but it’s a different issue.) Since this was a Lufthansa-marketed and operated flight, it was fine. The agent just processed the payment over the phone. Seats showed up in our system, even though they didn’t appear on Lufthansa’s website. But they confirmed everything was perfectly fine and it would show up during check-in. The seats showed as taken on the seat map so we didn’t think twice.

Fast forward to check-in. Steffi goes online and finds that she has been moved to a middle seat about 10 rows back. Heidi, however, somehow kept her seat. Unfortunately Heidi was the one sitting in the middle with Steffi on the aisle, so now both were scattered in random middle seats.

At this point, there was no way to truly fix the problem because Lufthansa had given the original seat away to someone else. But how the heck did this happen? Seats had been paid for. We had it confirmed on multiple occasions. Did Lufthansa just randomly decide to honor some seat assignments and not others?

I didn’t handle the original booking personally (someone else here did), but at this point I was the one trying to get it resolved. I called the Key Accounts support desk and ran into one of the more condescending agents I’ve ever spoken with. He told me that seats were never paid for and that was that. I didn’t have all the info in front of me at the time. I was just trying to get on the phone before the Key Accounts desk closed 5 minutes later. (This was a Friday night and it wouldn’t reopen until Monday.) With his absolute unwillingness to apparently even look in the reservation to find out what was actually going on, I knew I was out of luck there.

I moved on to the regular reservations line and found a tremendously helpful person who looked at it and said that she did see the payment in there and didn’t know what had happened. There wasn’t much she could do, but she said she documented the reservation to explain what happened so that the airport staff in Denver could do what they could to get them better seats. If they couldn’t do anything, then we should call back to get a refund.

I looked at the seat map and saw that there were some good seats that were blocked for airport-assignment only. Further, they don’t sell premium economy on this route yet but the particular airplane they were using had it onboard. Maybe the airport would apologize by putting them in those seats. After all, if they aren’t selling premium economy then they’re just moving coach passengers up there. Hopes were high that this would get resolved.

Those hopes were immediately crushed by unhelpful and lying airport staff. Upon check-in, the agents said that the seats weren’t paid for correctly. They said that the travel agent screwed it up. Regardless, it wasn’t Lufthansa’s fault at all. This was a classic case of an agent just not wanting to deal with a problem. By blaming someone else, they could wash their hands of the issue and move on.

The end result was that they refused to do anything to help them and made Heidi and Steffi feel like crap. They were able to get seats toward the back of the airplane together, but they were angry and confused. I would have been too. And I was livid that someone had the nerve to blame us when the seats were paid for directly with Lufthansa.

A couple days later, I called Lufthansa and got another good reservations agent. She at first said she couldn’t see the payment, but I gave her the ticket number (actually an EMD, for those who know what that is) and she found it straight away. She seemed confused, apologized, and then said she’d send it for refund processing right away.

I asked her if she’d seen this before. She paused, sighed, and said “yeah, I’ve seen it before.”

Airlines often say that seat assignments aren’t guaranteed. That’s fine until they start charging for them. If they’re going to charge for seats, then barring some major problem (cancellation, aircraft swap), they need to deliver. Had Lufthansa apologized and moved them up to better seats that were available, you probably wouldn’t be seeing this post. But the attitude of everyone outside of general reservations was very poor. Yes, the clients will get their money back, but they still don’t feel good about this. And neither do I.

Plenty of agencies are trying to book away from Lufthansa these days. This kind of thing is not going to help the airline’s cause.

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46 comments on “If You’re Going to Charge for Seat Assignments, Lufthansa, You Better Well Honor Them (Tales from the Field)

  1. “The seats weren’t paid for correctly.”
    “Here’s the EMD, proving ancillary payment.”
    “Uh… uh… the agent messed up.”

    I work for a TMC and this happens more than you think. No one likes Lufthansa for the GDS surcharge. Why would we book them (unless we absolutely had to) if their service is lacking?

  2. I hope Steffi and Heidi are going to file a complaint with the DOT. Airlines will continue to pull these stunts (theybsold the same $100 seat assigbnent twice) until they start being fined for it.

  3. The dishonouring of paid seat selection is not just a Lufthansa issue. British Airways did the same thing to me this summer. I had checked in, with a boarding pass for my exit row seat, and while boarding, the ‘beep’ went off, and the gate agent just wrote in another seat number a number rows back. The gate agent just didn’t care when I said I had paid for the exit row.
    While on board, there were only two people in the three exit row seats. They had moved me for no reason at all.
    Airlines can no longer hide behind the excuse that seats are not guaranteed. Yes, operational issues such as aircraft config changes will happen. But as the airlines are extorting money from customers for services which they previously offered for free, then they have to hold up their end of the deal. It was the airlines that have commercialized the value of seat selection. They no longer have the right to take it away at the whim of surly airport staff.

    1. The gate agent probably could’ve handled it better, but I’m sure in the middle of boarding a flight they don’t have time to stop and handle it.

      Its also possible you were moved for weight and balance issues, but thats unlikely given that you were over the wing, where weight and balance matters less.

      1. Nick,

        The LH equipment from DEN to FRA is a 747-400. Weight and balance is not often and issue with that airplane.

        The gate agents should have taken care of this problem, who works the LH flight at DEN ?

        The subcontract out the ticket agent staff to another airline.

        There must be at least one ‘real’ LH employee in DEN, who could have cleared this up.

        Peter in Boulder, CO.
        former CO employee, Stapelton Airport

        1. As I mentioned, it would be unlikely that it was a weight and balance issue, but 747s have had weight and balance issues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lksDISvCmNI

          At best the gate agent could’ve directed the passenger to work with another agent at the desk, who wasn’t actively verifying boarding passes of passengers.

          Stopping for a long time to handle one passenger’s issue while many other passengers are in line behind that passenger is a failure of customer service for the people who are in line behind the passenger with the seat issue.

          1. Tough. It happens enough, perhaps they’ll start drinking I got their jobs instead of being lying pieces of trash making things up on the spot.

            1. Please don’t call anyone a piece of trash.

              Every person, even the surliest and rudest airline employee must be afforded the respect due to humans.

  4. I used to fly LH SFO-MUC regularly. On paid business class tickets, about $6K at the time. On one flight, while I was waiting for the meal service to begin, I asked if I could have another Diet Coke. The FA replied: “We did drinks. Now you will wait for dinner.”

    Well, ok then. I shifted to UA SFO-FRA for the rest of my travels.

    1. That’s been my wife’s experience as well in paid business to Europe out of EWR…after trying both LH & UA she uses UA to avoid the seats on the A346 and the consistent surliness of the cabin crew…

  5. I just had a recent experience with LH charging me for an advanced seat even though I didn’t have an advanced seat.

    Background: It was on a United ticket. I’m a UA elite and put my MP number on the res,

    I was able to choose a seat in advance for UAs flight upon ticketing but did not pick a seat on LHs site. I then saw some random charges from LH on my CC a month later and called up LH res. After waiting on hold for an hour, I got an agent who was initially confused and eventually said they were charging advanced seating assignments for the UA segments. Then after restating that logic to the agent cause it didn’t make any sense, the agent said I purchased it for LH flights but wasn’t assigned a seat. I asked for a refund and the agent said the charge was non refundable several times. I asked for a supervisor, and the agent said the hold time is 5 hours. LOL. I tried a few more times with different agents with more or less the same story.

    I ended up filing a DOT complaint and within a week, I got an e-mail from corp that stated a TA agent purchased advanced seats for me but did not select seats (What?). Regardless, they will refund the charges. If this is how LH handles everything, i’m not going to book LH flights in the future.

  6. Do we know for sure they oversold the bulkhead seats? If so why did the other passenger take priority? Were they on an LH ticket and not UA? Unacceptable either way but I’ve always felt like I received better service when flying on a ticket purchased directly through the airline I’m flying.

    1. A – You’re talking about my post or something a commenter said? I have no idea what happened. My guess is she got bumped and then someone else took the seat. I doubt they sold it twice at the same time.

  7. Instead of reselling the Brooklyn Bridge, LH & BA are reselling the same seat. Same scam, different flavor.

  8. I gave up on BA for doing this to me twice. I did the DOT dance. I even complained to the Oneworld desk (a waste of time).

    Cranky – have you thought of doing a story on the real value we get from Oneworld, Star, Skyteam? Its B.S>

    1. Fake Margaret Thatcher – I think you just wrote the post…. not much. (I mean, there are some benefits to being elite in the programs, but it’s not really all that great.)

  9. If she was on a bulkhead isle, it is possible that the disability desk, or LH’s equivalent, moved them out of that seat to accommodate a passenger with disabilities? I believe that is the protocol at UA (so those who book the bulkhead always have some chance, albeit a small one, of being moved legitimately).

    Not that this is any excuse for the airline’s handling of the situation, which sound unacceptable. I am just trying to think of reasons why she might have been moved in the first place.

    1. UAviator – No, they hold back other seats for disabled people that they won’t sell or assign in advance. If they’re going to sell it, they can’t just take it away from someone else.

  10. From my airline days blaming the travel agent (for any reason) was the standard line if the reservation was booked by one.

    From reading this, it could have been any type business now a days. Workers are not trained fully for the job they do which could mean not even knowing where to look to find an answer or solve the problem. Companies have seen it’s cheaper to give basic training to front line workers and then train and pay a few other workers more to solve all the problems the front line workers cause. It’s usually the older workers who have been around the longest who know what they are doing, but in the airline business are the most bitter workers so don’t want to do any more then they have to. Been there/seen that/done that as people say.

  11. My husband and I recently flew Lufthansa for the Denver-Frankfurt route, too. I had paid extra for seat assignments, Two or three weeks before the departure date, I called Lufthansa’s customer service; I was concerned that nowhere in the booking process (which I did myself, on their US website) was I asked for passport information, which I seemed to remember used to be a common field of data for international flights. I was told that that information is no longer collected but that my booking did not give the names as they appeared on the passports, i.e., I had left out middle names. The agent said that because I had included frequent flier numbers, she couldn’t just change the existing record. She created new bookings using the middle name.

    So then my husband and I show up at the airport for out flight and there was no record of us that the check-in crew could find. We were sent over to the ticket agent, who was able to find, deep in the digital bowels of the reservation system, that our bookings did exist at one time. She booked us for the Denver-Frankfurt flight but of course our reserved seats had been given away. We were placed in the very back, in the row that has only two seats. She didn’t – or wasn’t able to – do anything about return flights.
    I asked for an upgrade, which I hoped we deserved as they were the ones who screwed up our record and we were on our way to Berlin to attend our daughter’s wedding. But that nicety was denied us.

    When we arrived in Berlin (our final destination), I went up to the Lufthansa ticketing counter where I was lucky enough to get a very smart and experienced agent. She was able to determine that when that change was made by the US Customer Service person, it triggered some automatic safety system that saw the change as being not legitimate and our bookings had been automatically cancelled. This agent told us the name change was not at all necessary. She was able to fix our future flight information and vowed to contact the NY Lufthansa office to have our seat fees refunded to us. I don’t know if that’s gone through yet.

    I have always liked Lufthansa because we’ve had nothing but good experiences with them up until this major snafu.

  12. Oh good grief, LH and their seat hokey-pokey! I loved the DEN-FRA flight because of the convenience – actually more for the FRA-DEN since I don’t have to do the Customs-TSA dance since I live in DEN – but I’ve given up completely on LH. I don’t think I’ve ever actually had the seat I’ve requested/paid for except when traveling with a group large enough that we took the 4 middle section seats. Even paid business gets me moved around to whatever seat they feel like. It’s gotten to the point that between the seat games and the strikes I’m happy to fly UA, and I don’t say that lightly!

    1. john904 – I’m guessing this was meant for me directly and not for the blog, but we’re right around 5,000 email subscribers. Then of course there are all the people who read via RSS and on the website.

  13. Brutal. I too have challenges with seat assignments, upgrades, etc. — especially if flying on a 016 (United) ticket or code share. Frankly, agents at LHR do not seem to be aware that UA/LH are code share partners. “Oh, you are on United, we don’t handle them.” (gee, that United A380 sure is nice).

    But, to be fair, there are good people and good products at LH when you find them. Last week, I headed to the LH premium ticketing desk at FRA and asked about upgrades, United miles, cash, etc. A smart, fluent-English agent upsold me from coach to Premium Economy on the morning flight from FRA to SFO. LH was running a special and the pricing was very reasonable.

    The product itself is very good. And I’d highly recommend it. Apparently LH is not, as the minicabin was half full (versus 85% + in coach ad 90% in biz). Seats were wide, leg room was ample, food was good, service was attentive, cabin was clean, inflight entertainment system was super cool (Including my favorite live cameras — and with four seats to myself, I was able to tune one screen to map, one to camera and one to entertainment). For roughly the same price as UA’s 747, I’d pick LH every time (and, oh by the way, the UA flight that day turned around due to a bomb threat.)

  14. I used to love Lufthansa. Great food and customer care. When I was a travel agent I was on really good terms with my sales rep. The Senator desk staff were amazing and I had great relationships with them as I spoke to them almost daily. Things sure have changed. They are ruining their brand with the seat fees and less and less helpful staff. I get the seat fees as this is unfortunately a trend across the board. I have family in Germany and used to use my miles to book as an UA codeshare. I hope they can get the strike issues behind them and get the customer care back to where it should be.

  15. My seating snafu story comes courtesy of Hawaiian Air. When we booked the reservation (through a Hawaii-based online agency), we weren’t able to secure seat assignments for our return HNL-SAN segment. When we did online checkin, the web site assigned us “preferred seats” (bulkhead I think), then tried to charge us for it and there were no other alternatives so I stopped the process. The next day at the airport, the kiosk puked out an error as well, though the agent manning the kiosks tried to tell me that whole circle of kiosks was broken (which I don’t think was true) and directed us over to the long line with two agents to process all the customer service issues. Finally we spoke to an agent who gave us boarding passes without seat assignments and said we’d get seats at the gate. So then through security, and line up at the gate and finally get seat assignments, all the way in the back next to the toilets.

    Looking back maybe I should have filed a DOT complaint over HA assigning us a “preferred seat” with no alternative, then attempting to charge us for it.

  16. Brett…you comment that LH charges for all seats in economy class is not correct. They only charge for the lowest booking codes in the economy class cabin , I believe they are the 4 or 5 lowest booking classes, the remainder of the economy class cabin does not have a charge for seating.

  17. I’ve had endless problems with Lufthansa over the last 2 years and I try as much as possible to avoid them (unfortunately I’ve still had to fly them long haul three times in the last year).

    Firstly, ouch! Nine hours plus in economy on a Lufty 747? Lufthansa has slimlines on the 747 (both flavors). Yup, think those United A320 seats and sitting in them for more than 9 hours. They’re the most unbearable long haul seats you could imagine, and then Heidi and Steffi are pushed to the back of the plane!

    Secondly, I had a very similar situation to this checking in at BLR last month. It was LH to FRA and then United to the US, multi-carrier (interline) on 016 stock. Luckily I had a United GPU upgrade me to Business class, but at check in the LH staff tried to sell me an upgrade. No, I had no upgrade in their system and had to pay (so they said). Fortunately I had a print out of the PNR from the Lufthansa website that clearly stated “BusinessTraveller/USB – LH755 – Business Class” and my PNR on the United App showed that too. One supervisor later I was it the ticketing desk where the guy did get my upgrade back taking half an hour. He did mess up my seat assignment on UA for the FRA-SFO leg (moved me from exit row aisle to middle) but I managed to get that seat back using the United App. And then on the flight, even in C, the flight attendants were stroppy, which was a first.

    Lufthansa’s system sucks, and their staff are becoming surlier than even the surliest United employee. From now on if I can’t get back from India via DEL-EWR on United I’ll go the other way via HKG, just to avoid Lufthansa.

    1. Just interested….. why would you not try one of the ME3? I have found EY in particular to be vastly superior in “J” class

  18. I am flying South African this fall, purchased on United, with two reservations (family trip originating in two different U.S. cities). Selected seats earlier this spring, checked my rez as I diligently do and found they’re all scrambled up. Called to reassign and told “they don’t do seat assignments anymore” – despite choosing SAA over LH for that exact purpose. Any recourse on this? Would be nice for a family to be able to sit together on an extremely long flight, or have decent seats since I purchased them all six months ago.

    They also “lost” my reservation, and due to a very helpful Premiere phone agent had it fixed. I’m used to constantly checking and babysitting reservations, especially complicated multi-leg int’l trips – but a regular layperson would have been screwed come check in time.

  19. If that’s how they treat their customers, imagine how they treat their staff.

    No wonder the pilots are revolting.

  20. Similar thing happened to me on Frontier. I bought an aisle bulkhead for $50 three weeks ahead of time. When I went to check in, my seat choice had vanished. Why? The agent who was very nice said, “happens all the time – some computer glitch.” At least they refunded my money, gave me a middle bulkhead seat and also comped my luggage and return seat.

  21. Keep telling us these tales so we know what airlines not to take and letting them know why. Keep it up!!!

    1. I’m sure every airline screws up.. If you just follow the stories you’ll have to walk wherever you want to go!

  22. My wife and I flew from IAH to Europe earlier this summer. I wanted to take the Lufthansa A380 for my first A380 experience, and my wife was fine with doing so and paying extra for seat assignments in advance if necessary. At the time we made the reservations, the only remaining economy fares were W fares. I was planning on buying the tickets through the United website. I called United and I called Lufthansa and was never able to get a consistent story as to whether or not we could pay for the seat assignment outside of the on-line reservation process (can’t do it on United’s website). The bottom line seemed to be that the IT infrastructure wasn’t entirely compatible. So, we booked a United 767-400 to MUC, which ended up being a great experience. It’s hard to beat 2-3-2 in economy for long-haul.

  23. 2 years ago I was flying with LH from DC to Europe with my 3 year and 8 year old daughters at that time. We did not reserve the seats, as I was not even aware of such thing. It was very natural to me that they will seat us together. I was told we have 3 separate seats at 3 different parts of the plane. I told them they must be out of their mind if they think I will allow my 3 year old sit with a stranger in an overnight flight. The gate personnel helped me and I was the last person boarding the plane – because they were moving people around so I could have 3 seats together. This year (in a week) I am flying again with LH. I actually paid for seats to reserve them – and I am hoping it will be a nice surprise this time with no issues. I hope so.

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