Air travel’s collapse in competence [UPDATED]

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I went back to Canada for a couple weeks in October to visit friends and family. This journey required six flights — three in each direction — every one of which was delayed.

I traveled on three airlines: Lufthansa, Air Canada and SwissAir. All failed in multiple ways despite charging me far more money and delivering far less than in the past, with the exception of physical discomfort which has increased significantly.

The delays on the way over to Canada meant that I caught flights I would otherwise have missed because each was later than the one before. 

That luck did not hold on my way back to Europe. A long delay with Air Canada leaving Toronto meant that I missed my connection in Zurich and had to be rebooked on a flight leaving four hours later — well, five if you add a 45 minute wait on the runway due to traffic delays at Berlin’s horrid new airport. 

While I was bouncing across the Atlantic in great discomfort on Air Canada, crammed into an overpriced seat designed for those under 4 feet in height, SwissAir rebooked me on the next flight to Berlin and issued me a new boarding pass and baggage ticket. 

A four hour gap wasn’t enough for them to successfully put my suitcase onto the same flight. It was left behind in Zurich.

The delays continued on arrival in Berlin, where we parked at the gate and were informed by the captain that no one had showed up to operate the jet bridge. It would take Berlin ground staff 20 minutes to get around to it. 

I wasn’t surprised by this because the same thing has happened every time I’ve landed at Berlin Brandenburg Airport over the past two years. They know exactly when a plane is arriving and which gate it will be parked at, but in a Europe where the ‘rights’ of workers come first, the integrity of the business a distant second and the customer dead last, no one can be arsed to be there on time to move a jet bridge three feet so weary customers can get out.

We waited another 45 minutes by the luggage conveyor for staff to get around to unloading our flight, and when an hour had passed, the ‘completed’ notice informed me my suitcase had not arrived.

I queued up at the lost luggage counter for another 25 minutes, where a polite and helpful employee told me my suitcase was still in Zurich and would be delivered to my home in “one to two days”. 

It came to Berlin on the next morning’s flight from Zurich, just as he said. SwissAir passed it to a courier company called CLS Express who then informed me by a generic text message that it may or may not be delivered to my flat by 27 October — 6 days later, and a full week after I handed it over to Air Canada.

I asked if I could just take the train (well, three trains) across town to collect it myself. No one answered, but another generic text message followed informing me that: “Due to customs clearance reasons, there are delays at BER”.

Had SwissAir actually put my bag on my flight during that four hour layover like they were supposed to, I could have simply walked under the green “nothing to declare” exit in Berlin and gone home with it. 

But because the bag was forwarded after me, it was ensnared in a web of German bureaucracy that took days for someone in Customs to put a stamp on a piece of paper so I might get my property back.

“But what about German efficiency?” you might ask.

Anyone who has spent any time here knows ‘German efficiency’ is a national hoax. I’ll give you an example.

The ‘new’ Berlin Brandenburg airport opened in 2020, nine years after it was supposed to thanks to design flaws, faulty construction and alleged corruption. It was billions of euros over budget, and it has been dogged by breakdowns ever since.

Even getting there is an ordeal. 

I can either take a cab at a cost of €80 from my end of town (the old Tegel airport cost €25 to reach from the far side of the city), take my local subway line all the way to the last stop and then switch to a bus (that takes an hour and a half), or take a train called the Berlin Airport Express (FEX) which takes 50 minutes on a good day.

The Berlin Airport Express has the worst on time performance record of any train in the city — and that’s saying something in a place where the transit system is plagued by breakdowns, no-shows and endless construction.

It stopped running entirely for a couple weeks this past August at the height of the European travel season. Why? Because some genius at Deutsche Bahn decided routine maintenance had to be done on the switches and lines leading to the airport.

In a normal country this would be delayed by two weeks, but in Germany “That is impossible!” because a piece of paper said it must be done on that date.

When asked to explain why this maintenance work was taking place when especially large numbers of people needed to reach the city’s beleaguered airport, a spokesman for the railway said, “There are alternative connections to the airport”. Two of those were also shut down due to unrelated scheduled maintenance work.

So yes, that’s ‘German efficiency’: bureaucratic stagnation, paralyzing rules, bullheaded inflexibility and an obsessive self-righteous attention to procedures that accumulate like barnacles on the hull of a ship.

Life here is decent, though quite a bit shabbier than the quality of life in Canada, as long as you can fly below the radar. The entire country is a Kafka novel where an all-pervasive grinding, stubborn, faceless bureaucracy exists to run through pointlessly complicated routines that nothing will alter. God help anyone who gets pulled into its gears. 

But I’ve digressed.

Back to the utter shambles that is air travel. The entire system is falling apart. 

I should have known better than to travel with SwissAir. I didn’t realize they’re part of the Lufthansa group. I’ve been going out of my way to avoid Lufthansa, Air France and Frankfurt Airport for years because the one thing they can each be relied on to do is go on strike exactly when you need them, leaving you stranded.

I was supposed to arrive back in Berlin at 10am last Friday. I got back at 5pm, some 23 hours after I set out from Ottawa. 

My suitcase arrived at Berlin airport on Saturday morning. Today is Tuesday, and it remained trapped in a morass of bureaucracy and incompetence with no end in sight.

I never thought I’d say this, but Malta was more efficient by far when it came to returning an errant suitcase within hours, with minimal fuss and with an actual person who could be bothered to respond to me and help solve my problem. If you’re German or Northern European, I suggest you think twice about looking down on the ‘disorganized’ Mediterranean.

In Berlin, no one answered any of the phone numbers I was given no matter how endlessly I let them ring, and no one replied to my emails. 

And so I sat here for five days watching my beard grow because some airline or German customs storeroom had my razor along with my only decent clothes. The St. Albert’s cheese curd I brought back as a treat for my wife was rotting on the other side of the city and permeating my belongings with the stink.

I only managed to get a response from SwissAir and Berlin Brandenburg Airport staff after three days of tagging them in angry Twitter posts in which I said I was writing an article for publication about this experience. I read that such assholery is now a necessary strategy. 

SwissAir shrugged and made automated ‘sympathy’ noises while ensuring the compensation submission form on their website doesn’t work.

The exceptionally helpful Chris at BER actually tried to get more information — in person, in the baggage area — and took the time to call me to let me know what he’d learned. If only faceless German bureaucracy had more staff like him.

The courier CLS Express responded this morning — but only after I’d spent an evening digging through Google reviews, where I accidentally uncovered an unlisted email address. They said my suitcase was still at the airport awaiting customs clearance. I told them Berlin Airport said otherwise. 

The courier company brushed me off again, claiming they’d received the order but not my suitcase, and they would contact me when they had it in order to arrange delivery. But thanks to Chris, I knew they’d already been sitting on it for a day.

I replied that Berlin Airport staff told me my bag cleared customs on Monday at X time and had been signed over to CLS Express, and did this mean it was now lost? My phone rang 10 minutes later, and I had my bag within four hours.

An industry friend told me last year that this is now the only way to get help in these situations. If you don’t have your bag back within one to two days, you’re forced to use Sherlock Holmes level skills to find ways to contact an actual person. And then you must hold your nose and make an utter nuisance of yourself in private and on social media for as many days as it takes. Otherwise, you should probably kiss your belongings goodbye.

That’s not quite the end of the story, though…

You see, it wasn’t a truck marked CLS Express Ltd that brought my belongings. I received a call an hour or so after the time they told me they’d come, and a voice said, “I’m here.” I pulled on my shoes and went downstairs to investigate. 

I found a random Turkish kid standing outside my building with my suitcase. He was wearing normal clothes, and he’d come in what appeared to be his own car. 

He was very polite, and he had a clipboard with other addresses on it where I was asked to sign my name. I have no complaints there — but it does raise the question of what exactly is happening to the personal belongings of passengers in these situations.

As far as I can see, SwissAir has no clue where my suitcase is. The so-called ‘tracking’ link they gave me still shows exactly the same information it showed on Saturday, but my bag arrived five hours ago.

From what I was able to find out, SwissAir hires a company called CLS Express Ltd to deliver delayed or lost bags. CLS has a fancy website that lists their address as Hanover. They have no social media presence, and as far as I could research, no physical presence in Berlin.

Instead, CLS subcontracts the delivery of lost and delayed luggage to local subcontractors, and not even Berlin Brandenburg airport personnel could tell me who they are. All they know is that a piece of luggage has cleared customs and left the building.

Was CLS Express Ltd lying when they told me my suitcase was still in customs but it had actually been sitting with their subcontractor for a day collecting dust? Or did they even know until I told them?

What’s the chain of custody for passengers’ property? How secure is it? Does SwissAir even have a clue?

And what does this mean for liability? 

Is SwissAir still liable for compensation under EU Air Passenger Rights regulations once they’ve handed your luggage off to CLS Express Ltd? 

Will CLS Express Ltd be obliged to compensate travelers if a bag is damaged or robbed after they’ve signed for it? If so, for how much? If not, why not?

The entire thing is surprisingly dodgy. It would be an interesting story for a local journalist to pursue.

In closing, thank you Chris at Berlin Brandenburg Airport for your help. I appreciate it. You’ve done much to change my unfortunately negative frequent traveler’s impression of BER.

No thanks to Air Canada for your endless delays and missed connection.

Even less thanks to SwissAir for being unable to load a single suitcase onto a flight despite a four hour layover, and then washing your hands of it.

A grim shudder of dread to the Zollamt for your pedantic bureaucracy and pointless delays, and for the faceless, eternal hell you bring to every unwelcome interaction. I had nothing to declare.

And to the courier company CLS Express Ltd (‘express’?!?), thanks for not answering your phone even once, for brushing me off, sitting on my bag for a day, and taking two days to bring a single suitcase 35km across town. I could have — and would have — walked there and back in less time to get it myself.

Now to get my $16 Canadian dollars from SwissAir for the ruined cheese curd. If they think a broken website contact form will stop me from being reimbursed, they’ve seriously underestimated my ability to hold a grudge for decades.

About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Columnist at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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Ryan Murdock

Author of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Columnist at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

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