I have to admit, deep down in my heart I thought I’d be able to convince Ethiopian to honor my ticket.
After all, they honored the ticket of another persistent passenger and the path of least resistance would have been to shut me up and place me in a half-empty business class cabin. But that is now how things turned out.
I left the Park Hyatt Bangkok at 7:30p to do a little shopping. The MBK Center fascinates me and any trip to Bangkok would not be complete without a visit. By 9pm I was finished and opted to take the train to the airport instead of Uber. That saved me time.
By 9:35p, precisely four hours before scheduled departure, I stepped into the bustling departures concourse at Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK). I actually walked a lap around the concourse, psyching myself for the exchange that seemed inventible. I decided not to voluntarily share any information. Instead, I would wait and answer questions.
Check-In Starts Promising
Ethiopian Airlines’ check-in is in the far corner of the terminal. Check-in lines were already dreadfully long, but I found a priority line for business class passengers. As I waited my turn, a man in a green suit walked over. I noticed three stripes on his arms and assumed he was the station manager. He recognized some people in line standing next to me and raising his arms, empathically embraced them. He then extended his hand to me, smiled, and welcomed me to Ethiopian Airlines.
I was feeling quite optimistic at that point.
Recording these events was of paramount importance, but I wanted to be discreet about it. I brought my thin summer sport coat along which has a breast pocket. Thankfully the lens of my iPhone just cleared it, giving a fairly good view of my interactions with the staff.
Soon it was my turn to check-in. A contract agent took my passport and began the check-in process. Clearly, there was something wrong with my ticket as she typed for several moments before making an odd request.
“Sir, do you have the credit card you used for this booking?”
***Tangent alert: I was so stupid not to pull travel insurance on this trip***
Yes, I pulled out my AMEX Platinum and presented it to her.
She stated that the system would not let her “validate” my ticket but that it was just a fraud prevention issue. She took my card, typed away for a bit, probably found the “notes” on my file, picked up a phone, and then excused herself.
The Station Manager Arrives
Returning with the station manager, she explained that my ticket would not validate. The station manager, Mr. Tadesse Meskel, sat down and attempted to validate the ticket himself. He also failed. Probing deeper, he found notes on the reservation that were identical in nature to the email sent to me.
But he was confused. He eventually invited me to sit down and wait while he sorted it out. So as not to block the check-in counter, I stepped aside and stood waiting for him.
I have all of this on video. At least for now, I am not going to post this portion because my narrative above essentially transcribes what the video shows. Thus, I see no need to put a check-in agent’s face all over the internet.
45 minutes passed. The crew showed up. The station manager welcomed the crew and had a nice conversation with the captain before coming back over to me.
“Head office says you must fly economy class or take a refund.”
A back and forth ensued, politely of course. I staked out the position I have in previous posts—namely the unlevel “tails I win, heads you lose” playing field that adversely impacts consumers. I pleaded to his sensibilities, reminding him that if I had made the mistake and wanted the refund, Ethiopian Airlines would have laughed at me. He agreed.
Meskel had a printout with him: the e-mail exchange I’ve shared with you in multiple posts. He started reading it to me. I stopped him and told him that I read it and that the solutions were simply unacceptable. I asked him to make an exception for me, heck, to rebook me in economy if he had to but at least look the other way as I sat down in my originally-assigned business class seat on the flight. He shook his head and said that he was not empowered to and was required to follow the word of the “head office”.
He begged me to take a seat and told me he would keep working on this. I pleaded with him not to let me down and his response was “I’ll pray.”
Prayer Answered: Still No
I sat and waited for over an hour. It was now after midnight, less than 90 minutes before departure. Finally, Meskel returned, sitting down to next to me. He told me there was nothing that could be done and reminded me of my choices. You can listen to our exchange below.
Meskel encouraged me to take the flight in economy class then contact Ethiopian Airlines customer service for compensation. I bristled at the idea because Ethiopian Airlines’ concept of customer service is to unilaterally cancel a paid ticket weeks after it was issued and keep the money.
I asked to speak to someone in Addis and he nodded in agreement, but simply called the general reservations number. Perhaps the reservations agent I spoke with was the one who responded to my emails, never addressing the point. His tone (listen for yourself) was insincere and apathetic. He was unwilling to even entertain a discussion, dismissing my points with hollow apologies and simply repeating that there were no other options possible.
Exasperated, I asked to speak to a supervisor. Meanwhile, the station manager had left me with his phone while he tended to other tasks. The agent readily agreed and placed me on hold. Mr. Meskel returned and sat down. The telephone agent came back and said that his supervisor was busy and she would give me the same answer as he did. I told him I wanted to speak to her anyway. Somehow, conveniently I suspect, the call became disconnected.
It was now almost 1am. Boarding had already begun. I made one last plea to the station manager, but he once again simply encouraged me to fly economy and then write customer service.
I had fought the good fight, but lost.
We shook hands and he apologized again for what happened.
An Unexpected Surprise
Not really expecting anything, I mentioned that I had no hotel booked for the evening and asked if he could authorize a hotel voucher.
He thought for a moment, then nodded his head in agreement and instructed one of his colleagues to set me up with a room at the on-site Novotel. I sure appreciated that gesture. Rates were over $200/night at that hotel so I probably would have looked for a cheaper place offsite like I did when arriving at DMK had I been left to pay for it.
A third colleague escorted me to the Novotel desk four floors down where I was promptly invited into a van and driven over to the hotel. I did not even have to present a credit card and was given an 8pm checkout.
That touch meant a lot to me. It demonstrated empathy and even if implicitly, an admission that penalizing me for their mistake wasn’t fair.
Lest you think I take Mr. Meskel to be a fool, I’ll share this with you. We exchanged telephone numbers and have been chatting on WhatsApp about the incident. Should he ever take Ethiopian’s Dublin to LA flight, he has an invitation to dinner at my house.
The station manager was an honest, courteous, genuine, and kind man: everything Ethiopian Airlines could hope for in an employee. It is just such a shame that his hands were tied and he was strictly forbidden from seating me in business class.
Sadly, my story has a tragic ending. I failed and now have to determine how I am going to get back to LA. But this story isn’t over. Don’t worry, I won’t be writing about it each day. I also will try not to hold a grudge against Ethiopian Airlines. But I do intend to follow up with Ethiopian corporate about this. The powers that be at Ethiopian must understand that unilaterally canceling a ticketed reservation weeks after issuing it is dangerous. They must articulate how a consumer must grapple with the fine line between a “sale” and “mistake fare”.
That line is blurry and that is exactly the point: with impugintiy, Ethiopian can claim any fare was a mistake. That’s scary.
You know, the ironic thing is that Ethiopian has offered me a free flight before. The marketing team likes bloggers. They want us to write about their new A350s and Dreamliners. I could have taken a free trip, but wanted to provide an honest review for you. So I booked this instead. Not sure if the offer still stands, but maybe now I’ll just take the comped flight as a final stroke of irony.