The Travel Adviser: An unstoppable force

Lufthansa operates its fleet in nearly 80 countries across North, Central and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa, and in this instance, Israel.

Lufthansa (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Logic would conclude that if such a thing as an unstoppable force exists, then no object is immovable, and vice-versa. It is logically impossible to have these two entities in the same universe.
This paradox should be understood as an exercise of logic, not as the postulation of a possible reality. According to modern scientific understanding, no force is completely unstoppable, and there are no immovable objects and cannot be any – as even a minuscule force will cause a slight acceleration of an object of any mass. Such an object would collapse under its own gravity while an unstoppable force would require infinite energy, which does not exist in our universe.
To wit, take the recent encounter between a force whose energy is nearly legendary and whose sage advice is sought throughout the world, where his entertaining escapades enlighten and energize audiences and investors the world over.
With zero chance involved, this individual, whom we’ll call “J,” made a conscious decision to engage with Lufthansa.
The flag carrier of Germany, the largest airline in Europe – both in terms of overall passengers carried and fleet size, when combined with its subsidiaries – Lufthansa operates its fleet in nearly 80 countries across North, Central and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa, and in this instance, Israel. Its name is derived from luft, the German word for air, and hansa, commonly defined as guild or association.
Scheduled to fly on Lufthansa on a post-holiday Sunday afternoon at 4:15 p.m., J and his colleague were booked to fly via Frankfurt Airport to Sao Paulo, Brazil.
A quick switch in Frankfurt Airport, a sterling example of German efficiency, would enable the two passengers to handle the two-hour layover there, with a swift switch of planes, landing in Brazil early the next morning.
A call to his travel consultant at 3 p.m. was the first sign that this irresistible force was about to meet that immovable object.
Due to the air traffic controller situation in Cyprus, the plane arriving from Germany to Israel was delayed – thus ensuring that the flight would not be able to depart Tel Aviv in a timely fashion. In fact, already at that time, the flashing sign at Ben-Gurion Airport was ominously flashing, “DELAY – Scheduled departure 6 p.m.”
Rapidly utilizing every arsenal in his bag of tricks, the travel consultant came to the conclusion that alternative flights were not an option – and a simple solution was not to be found. Contacting Lufthansa’s office in Tel Aviv, while J was beseeching ground personnel at Ben-Gurion Airport to make something happen by sheer will, the travel consultant followed the protocol to try rebooking them via any other city in Europe to any other city in South America.
The paucity of planes populating Ben-Gurion Airport in the afternoon, coupled with the near lack of morning departures from anywhere in Europe to anywhere in South America, led Lufthansa’s representative in Tel Aviv to proffer the only sensible conclusion: “Send your clients back to their homes, they cannot make the connection in Frankfurt.”
Relaying the results of that depressing discussion did little to dissuade J and his colleague. More surprisingly, the Ben-Gurion Airport staff showed little consternation that he’d miss his connection.
Quoting from his letter to the Lufthansa customer service department, J writes, “Lufthansa issued both of my boarding passes and gave me the clear impression that I would be able to make my connection in Frankfurt. Making clear to me that despite the scheduled delay, I should be able to make my connection in Frankfurt, Lufthansa made no effort whatsoever to assist me in Frankfurt by holding the flight for just a few minutes, or providing some sort of accelerated transit with the terminal in Frankfurt. I cannot emphasize enough that the ONLY REASON I agreed to even get on the flight in Tel Aviv was because the Lufthansa staff assured me I should be able to make the connection.”
Round one easily went to the immovable object. Sure, Lufthansa’s plane finally departed Ben-Gurion Airport – but the cavalier, near lackadaisical attitude espoused by Lufthansa’s representatives left the bitter taste that they simply want to pass the problem on to their Frankfurt colleagues.
As noted earlier, there are no morning or afternoon departures from Europe to Brazil, and the two men were quickly put up at an airport hotel. Scrambling to rebook their meetings, realizing they would now show up 24 hours later than planned, they furtively got some sleep.
Imagine their surprise the next morning when informed by hotel personnel that while their flight was not until 10:15 p.m., they had to vacate their hotel room by noon! This potential insult to injury was deftly solved by their travel consultant, who with a quick phone call the Lufthansa’s sales team in Israel, received permission for the two to stay in their hotel room until they had to present themselves that evening for the flight.
J’s letter expresses quite succinctly the core of his complaint. “I cannot begin to calculate how much damage to my business and reputation was incurred, and how much personal anguish my colleague and I endured as a result of our missing the flight to Sao Paulo, due to Lufthansa’s poor advice and impoverished efforts to assist me. I am a platinum-level traveler who clocks nearly 40 intercontinental flights a year, and hope that my relationship with Lufthansa can take a turn for the better after this most unfortunate and largely preventable incident.”
The crux of this incident is that it was indeed preventable. In full candor, J should not have been allowed on that plane. In fact, his travel consultant pleaded with Lufthansa to put them on an evening United Airlines flight to Newark, thereby avoiding the lengthy layover in Europe, but was rebuffed by airline employees who explained that their protocol prohibits them from transferring a South America- bound passenger via North America – and that they would only transfer him to a Swiss flight, of which none existed.
Too often, airline representatives are actually employees of an outside company, and employ the not-in-my-backyard or NIMBY defense, quite simply meaning: Get them on, get them out and let the next airport’s staff deal with the mess.
Rather than step up and make a concrete decision to solve the problem, they find it less cumbersome to pass the buck and pacify the passenger by putting them on a plane, secure in the knowledge that it is no longer their responsibility.
J’s complaint to Lufthansa will be answered in a responsible manner befitting an airline of their size and reputation.
Explanations will be forthcoming that they did everything in their power to permit J and his colleague to make their connection. Apologies will be forthcoming, with Lufthansa commiserating with the delay and some type of compensation – even if merely symbolic –offered.
The moral of this story is: Don’t believe everything you’re told – a 45-minute layover in a small airport such as Des Moines is plausible; in a major transportation hub like Frankfurt, it is near impossible. J and his colleagues knew the risk they were taking; they had been clearly informed that if they missed the flight, they’d have 24 hours to wait for their next flight.
Belief in a higher power is what enables many of us to get through each and every day. But no matter how much force and energy one has to expend, an object like a giant airline will inevitably win the day.
The writer is CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. Questions or comments: [email protected]
Lufthansa responds:
On September 28th, 2014, thousands of travelers flying in and out of Ben-Gurion Airport, as well as other destinations and gateways across the Aegean Basin, were delayed by a slowdown in air traffic by the ATC handlers in Cyprus. Unfortunately this slowdown created delays for Lufthansa passengers flying from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt. Despite all our best intentions to expedite the departure of flight LH687 that evening and have the flight airborne at 6:00 pm, the tower requested to hold the flight a further 30 minutes after it had departed the gate. The additional delay was neither foreseen nor planned and resulted in a number of our customers missing their  onward connections. We apologize for any inconvenience caused by the delays, which were not in our control.