Air Berlin flew an emotional final flight on Friday after the airline filed for bankruptcy in August, proclaiming “the end of an aviation era”.
One shouldn't feel too much sympathy for them, though. Although the company took out insurance to cover their CEO’s salary in the case of an insolvency, they never did so for the passengers. So, while CEO Thomas Winkelmann will receive €950,000 every year until 2021, at least 100,000 passengers who booked flights before the insolvency have been told that they have no right to a refund.
The airline states on its website that people who bought flights after they filed for insolvency will get their money back. But “if the booking was made before August 15th 2017, reimbursement is not possible.”
Why the airline only pays compensation to those who bought tickets after August 15th is a legal issue, explains broadcaster MDR.
The company had to offer compensation after they filed for bankruptcy, otherwise no one would have booked flights with them. But those whose flights were booked beforehand join the long list of creditors to whom the company owes money. If they file a claim, they might get back a portion of their ticket cost at the end of insolvency proceedings, which will likely take years.
This is of little comfort to many expats who live in Germany, for whom the effects of the Air Berlin insolvency have been particularly painful.
‘Creditors will split the spoils’
Ricardo Santos had planned to fly back home to the US with his German wife and 2-year-old son for Christmas. He wanted to bring his son to meet his ageing grandmother, who had only met him once.
The Berlin-based freelance designer told The Local that he booked in July to try and get the cheapest deal possible. Although he had some concerns at the time, he felt reassured by statements from the airline that Etihad had pledged to keep it afloat for the next 12 months.
After the company filed for bankruptcy, it took months before they gave him any information on the status of his flight. Then, earlier this month, he received a short letter telling him it had been cancelled.
With around two months left until Christmas, the costs involved in buying new tickets for the whole family were too prohibitive. Santos was left with no choice but to go back to the US alone, leaving his wife and child behind.
“Creditors will cut up the company and split the spoils, but we the consumers, who barely have enough money to buy a ticket to visit the family for Christmas are left with no recourse,” he says. “For Air Berlin €1,400 is nothing, but for me and my family it is a huge amount of money.”
Carlos Tadeu Panato, a Brazilian who has lived in Berlin for the past three years, was also caught out after buying tickets in July.
He paid €511 for flights to Paris for his family to celebrate his wife’s birthday next weekend. But, after he was informed of the cancellation on Friday, he ended up buying last minute train tickets with Deutsche Bahn.
"Now I have to spend more money and then we will have less time to do things in Paris,” he says. “I thought about cancelling the trip, but then I would have lost more money.”
Philip McCormick also bought return flights to Chicago in July for himself, his wife and his young daughter. He says that Air Berlin repeatedly assured him that, if the flight was cancelled he would be put onto a partner airline.
"We flew out on what ended up being the last flight to Chicago. The flight staff were amazing, they really took care of our daughter," he says.
But while in the US they received a short letter telling him the return flight had been cancelled. When he called up to enquire about being put on a partner flight, he was told no other airline would take Air Berlin passengers. He was left with no option but to pay another €900 for return flights.
"I feel sorry for the employees, we have flown with Air Berlin a few times and the staff have always been lovely. I understand the law, but anyone who has booked a flight should be given reimbursement," he says.
‘When you booked shouldn’t matter’
Some Air Berlin passengers with whom The Local spoke have even complained of being left in the lurch over flights which were cancelled on dates long before the company went bankrupt.
Christa Smith, who lives near Regensburg, had planned a four-day trip to Mallorca with her husband and teenage son in July.
But their Air Berlin flight from Nuremberg to the Spanish island was cancelled after the company decided that the jet’s tyres needed to be changed.
“The plane was originally late arriving. Finally we got on and then we were sitting and sitting and waiting,” she said.
“Then they made everyone get off and said that they had to change the tyres. After about an hour and a half of waiting back in the airport we got the news that the plane had been cancelled altogether.”
Smith and her family had already booked a taxi to take them to their hotel, plus hotel rooms. Air Berlin put them on a flight the next day, meaning they arrived over 24 hours late. To make sure that they got a proper holiday, they then paid an extra night in the hotel and re-booked the return flight for a day later.
“The air line kept telling us we should just claim the costs from them,” she says. ”But then when it came to it they just said 'oops, sorry.’”
Smith says she applied for reimbursement in early August, weeks before the airline went broke. She filed for close to €2,000 in costs incurred by the flight cancellation plus further compensation which EU regulations entitle her to.
But the reply only came at the end of the month. The company said that “due to the requested insolvency proceedings we are currently unable to deal with any demands that may arise from your claim.”
Smith doesn’t believe she will ever see her money again.
“It’s junk. It shouldn’t matter when you booked your flight,” she says, adding that the whole experienced ruined her holiday.
Christos Mavrogiannis had a similar experience. He had two flights to Copenhagen cancelled in May and June and applied for compensation.
The company initially apologized and promised to reimburse him €278, but the money never arrived. Then, two weeks after the company filed for insolvency they sent him another email, stating simply “with regards to our previous correspondence, we ask for your understanding that we are unable to process your claim."