I am attaching a letter I sent to Lufthansa's chairman in Germany on December 29, 2008, that was copied to their New York consumer affairs office, seeking a refund of money extorted from me by Lufthansa's Shanghai ground staff. My letter was responded to three weeks later via a form letter that denied my claim without addressing the main issue, which is that Lufthansa deliberately entraps passengers via a policy of not informing passengers of extortionate excess baggage fees. A Google search under the heading "Consumer complaints about Lufthansa" yields roughly 25, 000 hits, underscoring that I am not alone in having been taken to the cleaners by this racket. What is amazing is that to date no law firm has organized a class action lawsuit against this airline. It would be a slam-dunk.
Chairman, Executive Board
Deutsche Lufthansa Aktiengesellschaft
Germany By Registered Mail
Dear Mr. Mayrhuber:
This letter is to demand immediate reimbursement from your company of $859.60 that was extorted from me by your Shanghai staff on 17 December 2008, in what amounted to a ransom payment to forestall an act of kidnapping and false imprisonment by your company.
Secondly, be advised that Lufthansa’s current business practices regarding levying ‘excess baggage’ charges merit immediate review by your legal counsel, as they evidently entail potential criminal and civil liability for your company’s officers and shareholders. The legal ramifications of Lufthansa’s policies, in a U.S. context alone, include the following: Racketeering (organized conspiracy to commit extortion), fraud, breach of contract, breach of implied contract (e.g., to apply baggage rules consistently), false imprisonment, kidnapping, invalid contract (duress), unjust enrichment, and negligence.
The details of my experience (see My Experience, below) are strongly indicative of a deliberate Lufthansa policy of cheating unwary customers – who are unwary by design. Accordingly, the contractual validity of many if not all air tickets being issued by Lufthansa worldwide is highly dubious.
Thirdly, I have been a loyal Lufthansa customer for eleven years, using your airline almost exclusively for travel back and forth from the USA to Europe, where I teach in executive MBA programs. Additionally, I am a stakeholder in a Prague-based travel company and have always recommended Lufthansa to our travel clients. I am shocked that, under your care, Lufthansa has resorted to some of the most unethical practices I have ever heard of in the airline industry.
My Experience Prague-Shanghai-Prague with Lufthansa
On 16 October 2008, in Prague, for the sum of $1161.36 charged to my US credit card, I purchased round-trip coach passage via Lufthansa from Prague to Shanghai. On 13 November 2008 I flew to Shanghai (through Frankfurt) with two pieces of check-in luggage, plus one backpack carry-on. The checked-in luggage contained heavy textbooks and readings to be used by me in teaching a business strategy course at a university in Shanghai.
On the evening of 17 December 2008, while checking in two pieces of luggage (minus the textbooks and materials that I had left at the university) I was told by Lufthansa ground staff that, in order to fly back to Europe, I must pay 600 euros for 20 kilograms of ‘excess baggage’. This sum equates to a 74% surcharge on my original ticket.
I asked the ground staff member, and her supervisor, to produce any document showing me that this demand was legal, and they could not. I was told that the class of ticket I held entitled me to 20 kilograms of carry-on luggage. I replied that this was news to me.
Lufthansa’s ground staff, specifically the check-in clerk and her supervisor, whose education and grasp of English seemed insufficient to discuss legal issues, told me it was irrelevant when I showed them my two luggage receipts for the Prague-Shanghai journey (Exhibits), and told them that ground staff in Prague had accepted my two pieces of checked luggage without comment.
I asked the ground staff supervisor what my options were, and was told that my only possibilities were that I could either pay or stay in Shanghai. I was told that the pending expiration of my visa was my problem, not Lufthansa’s, even though it would mean my violating Chinese law and being prevented from future travel to China. Similarly, Lufthansa’s ground staff declined to offer any assistance or advice regarding, for example, sending one of my bags via air freight or sea mail.
When I asked if I could take the smaller of the piece of checked luggage on board, along with my backpack, I was told that this was not possible because Lufthansa strictly enforces a ‘one carry-on’ rule.
When I asked to speak with the manager of Lufthansa in Shanghai, I was told that he was a European, did not work the night shift, and could not be contacted.
Lufthansa ground staff provided me a boarding pass only after I signed a charge against my credit card for 600 euros (see Exhibits). No other options were presented to me or suggested to me by Lufthansa ground staff.
While boarding the aircraft, I saw that, contrary to what Lufthansa ground staff had told me minutes earlier, approximately 70% of passengers in economy class were each taking on board two maximum-size pieces of carry-on luggage. These passengers typically had one bag with a metal frame including wheels and telescoping handle, and another large bag on top of that. The overhead storage bins were already filled, just two thirds into the boarding process; cabin crew were stacking carry-on pieces in front of the A-340’s stairway, and even putting carry-on pieces in spaces reserved for cabin crew. The passenger seated on my right, destined for Barcelona, had three maximum-size carry on items.
On 22 December I met with my highly experienced and reliable travel agent in Prague and, before relating the above experience, asked him two questions:
Has Lufthansa ever provided his travel agency in writing or in any other way communicated to him their list of charges for ‘excess baggage’? Answer: No.
If, hypothetically, I had been deemed to have had ‘excess baggage’ on my journey back from Shanghai, what, in his opinion, would the likely surcharge levied against me? Answer: $25
Lufthansa ground staff in Shanghai could have found other solutions than to charge me 600 euros, for example, by allowing me to repack my bags and substitute my smaller piece of luggage for my carry-on backpack, or by helping me send a bag to Europe by alternative means. Their training evidently forbids them from allowing passenger-victims to escape or reduce ridiculously punitive charges.
Lufthansa does not enforce baggage ‘rules’ in a consistent way. In this case, ground staff in Prague waived luggage that ground staff in Shanghai used as a pretext for extortion. And Lufthansa’s allegedly strict ‘one’ carry-on bag rule is not enforced at all.
Although, as I have subsequently researched, Lufthansa buries on a web site a obscure (and difficult to understand) PDF file listing your outrageously punitive ‘excess baggage’ fees, Lufthansa issues electronic tickets that contain no alerts to prospective customers that this PDF exists or should be referred to as part of the passenger’s contract. Nor does Lufthansa make any other attempt to make your baggage surcharge policies transparent, such as pre-departure emails to passengers, or clear notice in your inflight magazine. These omissions by Lufthansa evidently are clearly deliberate, to facilitate unjust enrichment at the expense of unwary customers. Finally, Lufthansa’s present excess baggage PDF is dated September 16, 2008 when fuel prices were extremely high, which makes it all the more indicative of unsavory intent that, while fuel prices have fallen steeply, Lufthansa makes no effort to alert customers of these charges. They are, in short, pure profit windfall and it would not surprise me if your ground staff in places like Shanghai are instructed to meet a daily quota of victims.
In closing, Mr. Mayrhuber, I would appreciate a refund check in the amount listed above at your soonest convenience, and also, if you can find your way to it, an apology commensurate with the inconvenience and distress caused me.
I also would like to recommend that you, as a leader, take steps to mitigate the liabilities that your firm is accumulating by condoning a racket that is eventually going to attract a huge class-action consumer lawsuit and embarrassing punitive sanctions by regulatory authorities. In a nutshell, greatly reduce the excess baggage fees or widely publicize them.
Yours very truly,
Exhibits: Luggage receipts, 600 euro charge for 20 kilos, itinerary provided by travel agent