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 assistant editor. Follow her on Twitter.

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:

“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!”)

“I wonder if he flew air Berlin and that's why he had no normal clothes and proper shoes ;)” (accompanied by this picture of a sandaled star on the red carpet)

“Service ist Katastrophe!”

 It continues, for the airline company has apparently performed genuine miracles of incompetence. They misplaced the equipment of two different bands in one month, first forcing the Swedish metal group Sabaton to postpone a concert (for lack of instruments) and then spiriting away the tools of the trade for a trio of Toronto rockers.

Nicht halten Sie Ihren Atem, Freunde. As shown by the below exchange between a customer and a service representative/Twitter bot, seeking to recover a bag from the Air Berlin vortex lands you in an uneasy layover between the company hotline and the airport Lost and Found. Few who venture into this geography of evasions and runarounds return unscarred.

The business has not yet responded to Slate’s request for comment. Whoever runs its Twitter feed is very busy trying to stanch the blood flow. Initially robotic apologies are becoming more contrite (if you can measure contrition in exclamation points), even though the message remains the same: Please contact someone else.

While speculation that the company may soon waft up to the great tarmac in the sky has quieted with its Oneworld merger, Air Berlin’s total inability to transport a Delsey suitcase from point A to point B can’t be a good sign. If all fails, though, they could have a future in marketing chocolate hearts. Chocolate hearts! This Air Berlin motif attempts to sweeten the otherwise ireful newsfeeds, sometimes as a verb—“We #chocolateheart Kolle,” “We chocolateheart the world!”—and sometimes as a tinsel-wrapped talisman against customer hate: “The chocolate heart is an airberlin trademark and is presented on many airberlin flights as a farewell gift to guests as they exist the aircraft,” explains a press release. These sugary frills amid all the teeth-gnashing mark Air Berlin as either egregiously out of touch or invested in some kind of dada rage-candy performance art.

Regardless, here’s where a Teutonic philosopher would offer a stunning insight about the role of social media as a leveler. Facebook and Twitter increase accountability by bringing mighty companies face-to-face with the everyday people who use their services. Consumers can band together and share experiences. Plus, the public nature of it all makes these platforms a great new forum for the ancient and eternal pastime of shaming. How would Adorno unpack the irony that it’s when businesses try to burnish their images by turning to Twitter and Facebook (“we’re so hip and accessible!”) that they most risk losing control of their brand? What would he make of the queasy drama of Air Berlin’s corporate unraveling? Where did all the luggage go, anyway? Amid so many questions, only one thing seems clear: Whatever you do, don’t fly Air Berlin.