You have received a customer complaint. Do you focus to minimise your financial loss or the loss of face your company may suffer? This thought crossed my mind when I lodged a claim with Alitalia for delayed delivery of our luggage on July 1. We had enjoyed a wonderful trip to Italy recently. For five days we stayed in a private apartment in Florence just round the corner of Piazza de Santa Croce.

When our luggage did not arrive at Rome airport we had to stand in line for over an hour to register the PIR. However, it had already been traced and would be sent after us to Florence. It saved us carrying the three backpacks and, let’s face it, mistakes do happen to the best of us. Having worked for two decades in the travel industry I appreciate only too well that it is the way you handle customer complaints which matters most. The lessons I learned were simple:

  1. Sort out what truly is the problem, if any, as fast as possible
  2. If it is your mistake own up to it immediately
  3. Impress the client by offering compensation over and above commensurate to the incident, e.g. an upgrade or so.

Amazon, for example, impressed me very much last year by sending me a new kindle immediately upon a message from me that mine didn’t work properly. Amazon did not even wait for the receipt of the old kindle which they requested me to return. In spite of knowing about the difficult sale of Alitalia to Air France, Alitalia amazed me in quite another way. Listen to this: they apparently employ their own drivers for the purpose of delivering luggage. Do they mess up so often? I expected such a thing to be outsourced to a TNT or DHL. The Alitalia drivers are apparently accountable to no one according to their agents at the airport. We were told that the driver tried to deliver but did not follow the advise as stated on the PIR: he did not call us on our mobile (not allowed to make international call), did not send me a sms, nor an email. He also did not  give me a missed call, nor did he leave a note in the mail box saying ‘Please I did my best but, as you are on holidays, found you not at home. Please call me to arrange a suitable time’. Actually we were told that the chap didn’t any English.

During my daily international mobile calls to Alitalia in Rome it also became clear that Rome and Florence do not talk to one another. ‘No sir, we only use telex.’ Telex? I did away with my telex two decades ago!

When, on our last day in Florence, we took a cab to the airport to collect our three bags one was missing. ‘Missing, how do you mean missing?’ I asked totally stunned.  It was with the driver who with his sense of duty was trying to deliver it again. Why not all three? ‘Please sir, you have to ask Alitalia, we are a separate agency’ said a frustrated lady at the lost luggage counter, as if that had to be so obvious. Nevertheless, she was so kind as to call the driver but his inability to deliver had hurt his ego and he refused to meet us in town. We therefore requested  the lady to arrange for it to be sent to Roma. Mama mia!

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. That was my wife’s attitude and I had little to counter that. You cannot walk for days in the same outfit, particularly at 38 degrees. I suggested to my kids to daily rotate their underwear inside out and back to front etc. They did not buy that and looked horrified at me as if had a mental breakdown. Anyway, the staff from Alitalia in Rome had told us that they would refund us.

To cut a long story short, I do feel like buying the CEO of Alitalia an annual subscription to the Harvard Business Review. He obviously has not heard of it, let alone read one.

See below for the Dutch response from Alitalia in the Netherlands with whom I submitted my claim. Yes, I admit I was too scared to deal with more Italians over this. As the text may be double Dutch to most of you: in the first para Alitalia offers their apologies. Accepted. No hard feelings really.

The second paragraph outlines their legal position. An SDR (IMF Special Drawing Rights), ever heard of it?, is currently approximately one and a half dollar. The maximum an airline has to pay is some 900 Euro. OK interesting to know and good to get some references I guess.

In the third paragraph the offer to pay Euro 280 instead of the 700 claimed. We had spend 44 Euro on the taxis to and from the airport so that leaves 236 for actual clothing. Divided by three pax this comes to roughly 78 Euro per person, the price of a decent business shirt. Should we have gone to the Salvation Army? 78 Euro for several days of clothing including underwear, pajamas, and sandals in downtown Florence?

Let me write to Alitalia to seek clarification. Perhaps they meant the compensation to be per person. Considering the daily international mobile calls I had to make this would not be incorrect.I will keep you posted on their response. In any case you are forewarned for when you fly next. Check the policy of the airline. Interestingly, the EU is considering action against this part of the convention.


July 22

Three weeks after lodging my complaint:

Hiermee bieden wij opnieuw onze oprechte excuses aan voor het ongemak dat u heeft ondervonden tijdens uw vlucht met AZ319 van CDG naar FCO op 16/06/2013.

Met betrekking tot uw klacht informeren wij u dat volgens de EG Verordening 889/2002 (zie artikel 31 van het Verdrag van Montréal), in het geval van inefficiënte afhandeling van uw bagage (verlies, beschadiging, verkeerde afhandeling of vertraagde aflevering van de geregistreerde bagage) is 1131 SDR (gedefinieerd door het Internationale Monetair Fonds) de maximale verantwoordelijke limiet van de luchtvaartmaatschappij.

Zonder te bevestigen aansprakelijk te zijn voor het incident, wilt Alitalia bevestigen een totaal bedrag van €280 tegemoetkomend aan de kosten dat u heeft moeten maken tijdens de dagen zonder uw bagage om de noodzaakelijke goederen in te kopen, door middel van een bankoverschrijving aan u te willen compenseren.

August 15

Alitalia Rome called to check if I really didn’t want to accept their proposal. Florida, the friendly customer service person from Alitalia, initially went on about the Montreal Convention so I quickly explained that I understood the convention and that Alitalia had a scope of Euro 900. Then she went on about Alitalia’s own policies to which I put forward a simple question: can you buy a complete set of new clothes for Euro 78 per person? She understood the absurdity of this particularly as I highlighted the number of days we had been without luggage.

A few minutes later she called again to query one more escape route: we only have two tags as two bags were checked in together. This would mean Alitalia only had to pay for two people. Interesting point though the difficulty here is that Air France themselves had provided us with one of their own plastic bags labelled Air France to protect the straps of the backpacks. Alialita is, like the whole of Italy, on holidays in August so Florida explained that she would put the case again with her management so that we can expect a further response in a few weeks…

In the end we were offered a voucher as compensation. We never flew Alitalia again.