swiss air 88 298.
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
The phone call came at 5 in the morning.
Hana's tone was not so much hysterical as incredulous. She was flying, sans assistance, with her three small children under the age of eight.
She had flown many times and chosen this time to take Swiss Air via Zurich to Chicago. Unable to do a Web check-in the night before, as her plane to Zurich was a code-share flight-operated by El Al, she showed up over three hours in advance at Ben-Gurion Airport.
After going through the security procedures, with her kids becoming restless, she approached the Swiss Air counter to present her passports and collect her boarding passes. Quietly, a supervisor came forward and asked her to move aside.
Her level of trepidation rose as she meekly followed her instructions. She was sage enough to have no liquids or gels in excess of the 100-ml. limit. All her passports were valid beyond the six months that her travel consultant had advised was the minimum validity. While her kids were not the best behaved, none was throwing a tantrum.
In a firm voice, the Swiss Air supervisor told her they had taken the four of them off the flight to Zurich due to overbooking. It wasn't that she arrived late, nor the absence of the boarding passes, simply that El Al, which was operating the flight, needed four seats for its platinum frequent flier members, and Hana and her three kids matched the required number.
Pleading with the supervisor, she pointed out that she was not flying just to Zurich, but connecting to Chicago. Her pleas were to no avail.
"You've been bumped," she was told. "So let's discuss your compensation."
It was at this time that she called her travel consultant, beseeching her to intervene in this absurd selection process. Minutes went by with the travel agent trying to locate someone responsible at Swiss Air's main Israel office to overrule the edict but without success.
Hana was given â‚¬800 (â‚¬200 for each of them), and her ticket was rebooked on El Al to Toronto with a connection on United Airlines to Chicago, departing in two hours.
Realizing that the gate for her originally scheduled flight to Zurich was about to close, she acquiesced, had her luggage taken over to El Al and completed her checking in with El Al for the Toronto flight.
Ah, but Murphy's Law had already begun its process - "If anything can go wrong, it will."
At the El Al gate, beyond passport control and duty free, she called her travel consultant once more to find out how Swiss could have selected her and her four children to bump off the flight. Basically, she wanted to vent.
She was not thrilled that she would now have to switch airlines in Toronto, collect her luggage, go through passport control, take a bus to another terminal and fly a second airline into the United States.
Her travel consultant had warned her not to get on the El Al flight. Checking his computer, he discovered the El Al flight was not departing on time.
In fact, it wasn't scheduled to depart until late that afternoon to Toronto. While five hours in an air-conditioned terminal is not the worst part of flying, he pointed out to her that by the time she arrived in Toronto, there would be no connecting flight to Chicago.
Turning to the El Al gate representative, she was brushed aside with the scariest words she had heard that morning: "It will be okay."
Encouraged by her travel consultant, El Al tried to calm her down by insisting that someone would meet her at Toronto's airport and arrange an airport hotel for her and her family.
However, the idea of flying 12 hours in the hope that an El Al representative would meet her was not something she could stomach. She vainly contacted the Swiss representative at Ben-Gurion Airport who gleefully told her that once her ticket was endorsed to El Al, it was no longer the airline's problem.
At this stage, I entered the picture. Concurring with her hunch that flying El Al to Toronto would only compound matters, I advised her to get El Al to put her on the night flight to Newark with an American Airlines connecting flight to Chicago.
Though El Al balked initially, it finally relented and agreed to rebook her a third time.
Walking her through the process, I gently reminded El Al to book the four of them seats and children's meals. Now we had to get Hana and her family out of the airport and back home.
Explaining to the Swiss Air representative that the airline's initial decision to pull the four of them was the key to this comedy of errors, it stepped in and gave her a taxi ride back to her home with a return taxi back to the airport later.
And so a mere 24 hours later than planned, Hana arrived in Chicago.
What remains unanswered is how Swiss Air made such a stupid decision.
Airline policy is to first ask for volunteers when a flight is overbooked. This was not done.
Airline policy is then to bump clients who do not have a connecting flight. This was not done.
Airline policy is to put bumped clients on the next available flight. There were two more flights that afternoon to Zurich. This was not done.
Only an overworked supervisor would select a mother with three small kids on a connecting transatlantic flight and remove them from their first flight to Europe.
Is â‚¬800 enough to placate her nightmare? Hard to say, but when they told Hana she could use the compensation towards her next flight on Swiss Air, she burst out laughing.
I am fairly certain that flying Swiss Air will not be on her choice of airlines in the future.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.
For questions and comments email him at firstname.lastname@example.org