Reasons to not fly KLM and SkyTeam

…as I found myself sitting all the way in the back (second last row) all the way in the middle between a vertically challenged U.S. citizen and a bloke from the UK. Okay. To be fair: Both were friendly and even though it was uncomfortable as hell, it could have been much worse. Thanks to a first dan (a.k.a. "black belt") in "sleeping on uncomfortable flights" yours truly managed to catch some Zees.

When arriving in Amsterdam, James (the UK bloke) told me that I had jumped in my seat a few times during the flight when the baby behind us made strange noises. So it seems that I did in fact sleep — and arrived in Amsterdam in only slightly wrecked condition. After a breakfast involving caffeine, sugar and orange juice, I was feeling the desire for a shower, but otherwise did consider myself human enough to do some writing on my laptop for a publication about the WSIS that was somewhat overdue.

Business as usual for the travelling Free Software worker thus far.

Having landed at 7:15 with a connection at 10:05, time went by quickly enough and I went to board my plane to Hamburg. Arriving at the gate, I heard that one or two other flights were having technical difficulties and were being delayed or cancelled.

When getting on board the bus that was supposed to bring us to the plane, everything still seemed normal. When having waited for around 10 minutes in the crammed bus, it appeared that nothing was normal, indeed. We were told that the plane had technical difficulties and that we should please get off again to board at a later time.

Back in the hall, we were told that indeed boarding would now be delayed by 30 minutes. So open laptop, reply to some mail. 35 minutes later, we were told that indeed the plane was too broken to be repaired in time and that our flight was cancelled. Marvellous.

Actually: This seemed to be true for about four flights during the time I was in that boarding zone — so roughly one hour. Time to wonder wonder whether KLM actually had any plane that worked…

We were then told there was a later flight to Hamburg, but that was almost entirely booked, so only about 12 people would get on this flight. All of these would have to be Flying Dutchman (KLM’s bonus mile program) card holders. Which reminded me…

— Begin historical excursion —

I had flown with KLM to Sao Paulo for the CONISLI conference in November 2004 before, for which I actually did register with their bonus programme. When I registered, I was told that I would receive the card after having flown 5000 miles with them.

Having registered my miles with the KLM bonus programme, I felt quite certain that indeed Sao Paulo was more than 5000 miles from Hamburg. It appears that KLM disagreed, though, as no card ever showed up… although… the account statement I got from them said something about 12000 miles. Hm.

When trying to do online check-in the night before I flew to Boston, I found out that my account with their portal had apparently been deleted. In fact, it informed me that my id number for their bonus programme did not exist. Having filled out their feedback form to ask what exactly this meant, I never received any reply.

So apparently, KLM’s bonus program does not really exist and I could not find out whom you would have to bribe or contact to actually get your card…

— End historical excursion —

…which I suddenly remembered when hearing about only bonus card holder being on that next flight to Hamburg. Talking to the people at the desk it became clear quite quickly that they would not be of any help, so I made my way to the transfer center, where they sometimes can do something for you with other airlines.

At the transfer center, some middle-aged woman kindly informed me that there was nothing she could do for me and that the best she had to offer was a flight sometime in the afternoon going to Bremen — another city west of Hamburg — with ground transport to Hamburg. When telling her that I could not afford to lose my whole working day, she informed me I should consider myself lucky that they would bring me to Hamburg that day and not just tomorrow. An amazing statement to make around 11:00 in the morning.

By this time I started getting upset. And discovering that Amsterdam airport charges 8 EUR for 30 minutes of internet access did not help either. I will spare you the details of wasting your day at Amsterdam airport while you should already have been back on your desk, showered and with a fresh cup of good tea.

Amazingly, the plane to Bremen in the afternoon did not collapse on the runway. So a whole group of people who were on my original flight ended up in Bremen and eventually were loaded onto a bus to go to Hamburg.

Something like 2hrs+ later, we finally arrived at Hamburg airport by bus.

It was of course impossible to bring us to a useful location — like the central station — instead of the airport, you know how difficult it is to find landing slots for busses. They can’t just simply make a stop. In any case: the bus driver categorically refused to bring us anywhere else than the airport although 90% of the people did not want to go to the airport. As an explanatory note: While the airport in Hamburg is still in the city, it is not very central. And the bus driver was indeed very friendly and apologetic, but told us that KLM would give her all sorts of hell if she deviated just slightly from the predefined route.

All things considered, I finally made it home around 19:00 in not exactly mint condition, while the original flight would have brought me to Hamburg at 11:10, seeing me home before 12:00. More than six hours — essentially the whole productive time of the day — lost.

Interested in what KLM offered me as recompense for this ordeal when I asked at the transfer center in Amsterdam? Nothing.

Believing in qualified customer feedback, I did take the time to summarize the whole story to their customer feedback department. After the online experience I did not really expect to hear anything from them, but I wanted to give them a last chance.

I was positively surprised by the fact that there was any response, at all. But that positive surprise did not go very far as the letter that they sent me more than two weeks later only told me that they were very sorry, but since they have fulfilled their obligation to bring me to Hamburg, there was nothing they wanted to offer or do for me.

Just so you have the comparison: When flying StarAlliance to Linz, Austria for the ars technica, I missed the connection in Vienna because of a delayed flight. This affected two people — me being one of them — and Austrian Air’s response was to put both of us on a nice limousine with a driver determined to make up for the flying experience, driving us to Linz under gross disrespect for the speed limit and dropping us off at our final locations/hotels.

Since KLM / Sky Team worked so hard on this, I will not deny them their recognition as the number one airline to avoid flying with. In fact, as far as I am concerned, the Royal Dutch Airlines are indeed a Royal Pain in the A***.

Or, as my Brazilian friends would put it: KLM — Ninguém Merece Airlines!


About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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