My KLM nightmare: Denied Boarding

I remember when my mum used to tell me about how you could fly on standby, where you turned up to the airport without a booking but with a bit of patience and potentially a lot of waiting, you got on whatever flight had spare seats, for a reduced price. I thought how one day when I’m older I’d go on an adventure somewhere by packing a bag, heading to the airport and seeing where the next flight took me – maybe New Zealand, maybe China, or even Jamaica, who knows?! Now that I’m old enough to go on my own travels, going standby like that isn’t really possible.

And yet, somehow, I found myself on standby for the flight that was supposed to start my next big adventure – volunteering to teach English in Chile for 8 months. I wasn’t looking for a long wait in an airport to a mystery destination; I had booked and paid for a ticket on a very specific flight 2 months in advance. This flight involved going from my local airport, Cardiff, which meant both my parents could wave me off. Leaving at the very convenient time of 5.15pm for a short hop over to Amsterdam, and then an easy transfer for my connecting flight to Santiago, Chile meant arriving in a foreign country alone in the morning – perfect for getting my bearings and having a relaxed day before intensive training

I didn’t want a flexible ticket – I had to get to Chile on specified dates. I didn’t want to pay for a business class flight – I’m happy to fly economy… do I look like a businessman with cash to burn? I’m not a frequent flyer – but I could be in the future. I didn’t feel the need to check-in online – I was flying from my small local airport which was very quiet and I had to check bags in anyway. I mean online check-in is only there to save time at the airport, right?

All of these things counted against me when I turned up to Cardiff Airport and checked in to my booked flight, only to be informed that I had been put on standby.

Surely it’s a mistake?

We didn’t understand at first. This flight had been booked and paid for months in advance and I was here 2 hours before departure to check in. Nope, we were informed by the desk clerk that KLM (and other airlines) purposely overbook their flights due to calculated no-shows. Unfortunately for me, this time their maths didn’t add up.

I was informed that as the no-shows were generally expected then I would most likely get on the flight – but spending two hours waiting for a plane I might not get on was not a fun and exciting prospect. My pre-departure worries were for when I would arrive the other side of the world by myself, not for the flight that should get me there.

My bag was checked in with a bright yellow “STANDBY” tag attached so that it would be held last, until I was confirmed on the flight. I said goodbye to my parents and went through security with no wait and no fuss as Cardiff is a very small airport. So I sat around the departure lounge for some time, stressing about whether or not I’d get to Chile. Gate announced, I made my way there. The people boarding the plane were the same as at the check-in desk (I told you, Cardiff is a tiny airport!) so they didn’t even need to check my pass to know who I was. Ironically I was put to wait in the “pre-boarding” section with the business people who’d paid extra for the privilage, looking very out of place with my backpack and walking boots.

After watching every other passenger board they had to make announcements for two passengers who hadn’t turned up – excellent! Let’s hope they don’t make it on time. I’m relying here on other people’s incompetence for me to go on my scheduled flight. After more anxious minutes of waiting and a check of the plane, it turns out that those two passengers were actually already on board – clearly something wrong with the scanning system to have let them through.

The plane was full.

Complete and utter shock. It’s going to leave without me. What the hell am I going to do? It’s a Friday evening and I didn’t see many other flights out of Cardiff, let alone any that would get me to Chile. That plane that just left me here was the last KLM flight of the week, and my orientation started on Monday morning the other side of the world. 

The attendant came over to me, very aware that I’d overheard everything they’d just been discussing including who had drawn the short straw of confronting me. She explained that I wouldn’t be going on this flight, therefore I’d miss my connection to Chile but that they would find the best alternative, and even provide a hotel overnight and possibly a taxi to another airport.

Wait… what?! Another airport? If I’d wanted to fly from another airport I would’ve booked that flight in the first place! I had in fact been looking at flights from Heathrow when deciding how to get myself to Santiago, but as there was a stop-over anyway and it’s a big, busy airport that requires leaving lots of “if things go wrong” time I decided paying a bit extra for a flight from Cardiff would be worth it for the convenience. Oh how wrong I was!

While the attendant explained all this to me I was simply trying to keep calm and not cry from the emotion overload. I didn’t say much or ask many questions as the answers would most likely tip me over the edge.

As I was leaving home for at least 8 months, my parents had taken me to the airport which meant they’d been in contact with my booking agent – Trailfinders – while I was waiting on the other side. Trailfinders were just as gob-smacked as we were about being put on standby and had rung KLM directly to find out what was happening and why, but there was nothing they could do. As this is usual practice Trailfinders too thought I’d get on the flight.

The aftermath.

So after trying to take in the fact that I wouldn’t be flying that night I headed back through the departure lounge and security to my parents. I can’t begin to say how grateful I was that somebody else was there with me, because although I’d calmed myself down I was still in shock and just going through the motions and nodding along. My mum however doesn’t take any crap, and was absolutely appalled at how they were treating me. She asked them all the questions they didn’t want to hear and wouldn’t back down until she got a proper answer, not some wishy washy automated response.

The desk clerks sorted themselves out and tried to find me an alternative flight with one of their partner airlines. Unfortunately, as they’d bumped off the passenger going to Chile, and not someone who’s only going to Amsterdam then they’d given themselves a very difficult task. All options offered to me were completely unsuitable and ridiculous.

One had two changes with hours of transit time and arrived at 3AM. I’ve heard smack bang in the middle of the night is a GREAT time to arrive in a foreign country for your first solo travel!

Or how about a 7 hour transfer in Paris? Oh did we mention that also involves collecting your baggage that has 8 months worth of stuff in and getting a bus all the way across Paris to the other airport? Or to avoid that oh-so-inconvenient bus shuttle I could get a taxi to Birmingham, stay overnight there and fly to Paris to get the same connecting flight… that still involves the 7 hour transit.

While the desk clerk was trying to find all of these alternative flights, she’d given me my compensation voucher – a measly EUR 300 for the inconvenience of being denied boarding on my 21hr+ flight. The desk clerk kept insisting that I could get the money in my account now and that they even had free 30-min wifi upstairs. I don’t want your EUR 300, I want that flight to Santiago that I paid you for!

Goodbye KLM.

As KLM’s alternative offers weren’t at all suitable we enquired about getting a full refund for the flight all together. She reassured me that as I’d been denied boarding once she’d put a note on the booking to make sure I got on my next flight. Eventually it was sorted that I could get a full refund, and Trailfinders had in that time found a wonderful alternative – a similar journey but travelling from Heathrow, with a change in Madrid. It would leave in the evening, and get me to Santiago, Chile in daylight on Sunday morning. Thankfully I’d originally booked to arrive on the Saturday, because if this had happened 24hrs later then I would’ve missed the start of my teaching program.

Refund sorted. New flight booked. KLM cast aside never to be used again. Not only have they lost my custom, but my mum has now cut up her frequent flyer card with them. I won’t even get in to the problems she had trying to cancel her membership. 

So what now?

The bulk of this post was written during my transfer time in Madrid, but I didn’t want to publish it just yet. I don’t like doing things in anger, and my rage at KLM was still boiling high for quite some time. Now, 5 months later I’m over it, but it’s made me wary of how guaranteed any of my future flights will be. I understand unavoidable delays and cancellations, but this one was completely avoidable on their part.

Driving home from the airport, I repeated the process of my “last night at home with the family” again, but this time with a lot of research on the internet, and a heavily worded message to KLM. The EUR 300 they’d tried to fob me off with was in fact only half the compensation amount I was due. That amount is given to flights under 3,500km, whereas my jounrey was 12,000km. No wonder they were so eager for me to cash it straight away! Bumping people off their flight costs them money, and they’ve just lost a first-time customer who’s planning on spending a lot of her future travelling.

Looking back on the whole event seems a bit surreal, because at the time it was an absolute nightmare, and my emotions were completely overwhelmed. It served as a good warning to potential problems for my future travels, where I won’t have my mum to help sort everything out. My compensation amount of just over £420 let me splurge on a new pair of shoes, and has meant I have more money to buy the outdoor kit I need to start trekking.

While booking internal flights in Chile for my mum when she comes to visit me in December, it became a lot clearer why airlines expect so many empty seats on their flights. Her return ticket was half the price of only getting a single, so buying a return and simply not showing up for the second flight is easy. Anyway, that return might be a useful if plans change, and it’s a lot better than paying twice as much!


9 thoughts on “My KLM nightmare: Denied Boarding

  1. What a nightmare. I don’t understand why they dump a passenger with a onward flight to Chile. That sounds just pathetic. However, it’s great that you travel agents were so good in finding a nice alternative for you. Shame on KLM for not getting this sorted out.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Hopefully it serves as a warning to others too. Check in online first!!

      I couldn’t understand it at the time either. Bumping somebody who’s only going an hour and a half to Amsterdam would have saved everyone a lot of hassle.

      And I would highly recommend Trailfinders if you ever need a travel agent 🙂 I thought it would be stupid to use agents just to book a flight but my mum said I should. All of this could’ve ended up a lot worse if I hadn’t! While KLM were busy looking for an alternative with their partner airlines, Trailfinders were scouring every flight possible.

      1. Absolutely. Usually, airlines are supposed to look for all alternatives available, not only the ones with partners. The latter are cheapter for the airline, but from a legal standpoint that doesn’t matter. It’s just shameful how KLM handeled this one. Good you had Trailfinders on your side 🙂

  2. I would be very careful vowing never to use KLM again. I fly quite a lot (100 + flights per year) and in my experience KLM are one of the best. Especially if you plan a lifetime a flying, you may find you are hurting yourself, not KLM by never using them as they have some excellent routes and AMS is probably the best airport in Europe to connect in. They are also the only airline who maintain routes to all the small UK airports.

    All airlines overbook flights. Its how they keep their fares low which we all benefit from. Know your rights (EU261/2004), don’t let them fob you off and always try to get others to volunteer to be bumped off. I regularly volunteer due to the good payouts. Checking in online makes no difference.

    On a positive note, enjoy your trip! Sounds like you are going to have a lot of fun ahead of you!

    Manchester based, travelling the world.

    1. Hi Rob,

      Thanks for the advice. After my experience I’m a lot more aware of my rights, and I know all airlines do this, but I still don’t like the practice. I was excited to find out I could go to pretty much any where in the world from home, with a simple change in Amsterdam. Like I said, this post was written with emotions still running high, so I may have to give them another chance but it will be quite a while before that happens.

      I also don’t understand how overbooking their flights makes good business sense, because they’re paying out a lot in compensation and annoying customers at the same time. I didn’t take advantage of the free hotel and meals, but that would’ve cost them more too. I don’t run a business so maybe I’m just missing something! Making singles cheaper than returns would be a good start.

      Also checking in online does make a difference. Despite being one of the first at the airport, most other passengers had checked in online so technically they did so before me. I saw another man who had missed his flight filling out a form, so even with one person not showing up it wasn’t enough to get me on.

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