Kidnapped Luggage, Vengeful Customers, and a Spectacular Social Media Meltdown

Commentary about business and finance.
Sept. 4 2013 5:04 PM

“I’m Here for Business Meetings with No Clothes”

Rubbernecking at Air Berlin’s spectacular social media meltdown.

Air berlin
An Air Berlin plane.

Photo courtesy Martin Teschner/Flickr via Creative Commons

If you’re looking for your afternoon fix of schadenfreude, you should mosey over to the Twitter and Facebook feeds of Air Berlin. Over the past few days, the social media presence of Germany’s second-largest airline has become a mesmerizing spectacle of shaming and apology. As with any train wreck, it’s hard to look away, but watching a company, rather than an individual, melt down on the Internet seems especially surreal. Maybe the German language has a word for it. My word for it is oy.

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

Air Berlin has hubs at the Berlin and Dusseldorf airports. It primarily serves bustling European cities, but its flights go to 150 destinations all over the world. It’s got a fleet of 129 aircraft and earned profits of less than $9 million in 2012, the same year it joined Oneworld Alliance, which includes aeronautic heavyweights like American Airlines and British Airways. (Ledgers from previous years are swimming in red ink.) But the company’s best-kept secret—now a secret no longer—is that it is a portal to a strange, disorienting, Kafka-esque universe in which bags disappear or are abducted, and the bureaucracy in charge of locating them tweets bromides at you while adamantly refusing to help.

At least, that’s the conclusion you might draw after reading reams of customer complaints on Twitter and Facebook. The problem seems to have started when an Aug. 9 flight from Stockholm to Berlin took off without loading any luggage. Almost 200 bags idled in the Stockholm airport; passengers’ inquiries were met with endless redirects. One customer even unveiled a Facebook group called Airberlin 8109 Stockholm to Berlin - Where are our bags?!?!? The somewhat reiterative description reads:

 “A group for those who flew on AB 8109 from Stockholm to TXL on 9 August 2013. NONE of the checked luggage was loaded on the airplane—almost 200 missing pieces missing among the passengers. Little to no information has been provided. We filled out forms and were given baggage service numbers to call, but the phone line has no answer all day. Days later, still no information whatsoever, nobody to call, no information, not sure what to do. Baggage company says to contact airline; airline says to contact baggage company. Vacations & weddings ruined. We still can't comprehend why the captain decided to take off before any pieces of luggage were loaded. We need support from Air Berlin—please get to the bottom of this. This isn't one lost bag, it's a whole plane of lost bags!”

Scroll up and the saga continues.

“Any more news from anyone? Still says ‘delivery process initiated’; but no further info. Still unable to reach the baggage office,” one man wrote, four days later.

Then:

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“Day six without bags. Guess what—when we call the number airberlin gives you to call for bags lost 5 days or more... We get a recorded message telling us to call the number we've been calling all along (and getting no answer).”

 And, inevitably:

“I have been recommend [sic] this law firm for travel issues; anyone interested in joining me in seeking representation?”

The Aug. 9 debacle opened the floodgates. Since then, customers bemoaning lost luggage and unresponsive service—in a piquant mix of English and German—have invaded Air Berlin’s Twitter feed and Facebook page. (One woman’s more detailed tale of woe is here.)

Some typical shots:

“The people handling my bags were DRUNK!!!”

“Fluggesellschaften, die Menschen immer wieder aufs Neue die schönste Zeit des Jahres versauen, haben keine Daseinsberechtigung @airberlin” (In which the tweeter’s experience with @airberlin makes him question all airlines’ right to exist.)

“I rarely complain to the world wide web, but @airberlin and @airberlin_US = worst customer service ever.

“NIE WIDER @airberlin !!!!!!”

“Air Berlin lost our suitcase with all our clothes...however we do have the bag with all my scuba gear” (Silberstreifen, amirite?)

“Wurde von einer @airberlin Stewardess bestohlen!” (“I was robbed by an @airberlin stewardess!”)

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