Expat Essentials

Expat Essentials: How we (and refund.me) finally won our Air Berlin late-flight fight

(Editor’s note: Okay, it’s the Holidays, and you’re hitting the road. We’re reposting this so you know you can get reimbursed if your flight is delayed due to issues with the airline.)

Last summer in the U.S, my wife and daughters wasted most of a travel day grounded, waiting for an Air Berlin flight from Boston to Dusseldorf. Yes, that flight originated in the United States. But because their destination was a European Union country, we found out we were eligible for up to 1,800 euros (600 euros times three) in compensation under the EU’s Air Passengers Rights legislation.




Ah, but actually getting what is essentially a refund took both the clout of Potsdam-based refund.me and a clever ploy by my uber-organized wife Cheryl to get the documents we needed from Air Berlin itself.

We chose refund.me over Claim Air and other companies to make a claim for our Air Berlin flight, basically because refund.me is based in Potsdam outside Berlin near Air Berlin and because they pursue claims using legal teams.

Cheryl and our daughters Lucy and Lale flew – well, tried to fly – on 2 July, but not before their flight was five hours late. Which, we found out, was a violation of European Union consumer protection rules.

So, we filed a claim via refund.me. By 26 July, Air Berlin had made an offer, agreeing to pay the claim. We were notified by email we’d receive 1,800 euros or a travel voucher for 2,250 euros, good for one year. We’d pay refund.me 450 euros for winning the settlement. The claim process itself was resolved in 16 days, and we were told it would take 30 days for Air Berlin to process the payment.



What actually happened was Air Berlin reneged without stating a reason why. According to our contact at refund.me, Air Berlin refused our right to compensation outlined under EU Air Passenger Rights Regulation 261/2004.

At that point, refund.me turned our claim over to their attorneys in Germany, and we had to provide the booking confirmation and the boarding passes for the flight.



We had the booking confirmation, but we didn’t have the boarding passes. So Cheryl sent an email to Air Berlin stating our accountant needed the boarding passes for tax purposes so we could deduct it from our U.S. taxes. (They flew to Europe as part of our move to start Dispatches in Eindhoven, Netherlands.)

Sure enough, Air Berlin sent Cheryl an email saying they couldn’t provide the boarding passes, but sent go-show confirmations … Air Berlin’s confirmation that we indeed used the flight! (For the record, the flight is a legitimate business expense, and we would have needed the go-show confirmations sooner or later.)

Cheryl printed the email and uploaded it as her “boarding pass.” And guess what … three days from the time they sent the go-show confirmation, Air Berlin officials relented and notified us the check was in the mail.

Which it was … sort of. The refund came 13 October via PayPal. So, it took about three months to get the issue resolved in our favor. By the way, refund.me gives you a claim number and access code so you can track your claim progress, which is updated every week.

Of the 600 euros we were owed per person – 1,800 euros total – under EU rules, we ultimately got 1,264.50 refunded. That equals 421.50 per person after a deduction of 178.50  – a 25-percent commission to refund.me per our agreement, and 19 percent VAT to the German government. We didn’t know what to expect, but the good news is, refund.me stayed on top of this issue until it was resolved.

The lesson learned is, if you have a botched flight, keep all documentation including the boarding passes. The complication we ran into was that Air Berlin only keeps them online two months after the flight. When we went to download copies, there weren’t any. Hence, the “tax purposes” ruse.

To be honest, I’d been reading about – and reposting – accounts of Air Berlin’s financial woes, and didn’t think we’d ever get compensated before the airline either ran out of money, or took reorganization to avoid paying all the claims such as ours.

air-passengersHere’s just a quick recap of what’s happened with Air Berlin over the past few months:

Bloomberg reported in late September that Air Berlin had reached an agreement to lease Lufthansa’s subsidiary Eurowings 40 of its aircraft along with their crews. Air Berlin also was planning to cut about 1,000 of its 8,600-person workforce. At the time, Air Berlin shares had fallen 27 percent over the past 12 months, valuing the company at 87 million euros. The airlines is mostly owned by Etihad, the Abu Dhabi-based carrier.

• At that time, Aviation Week magazine reported an Air Berlin restructuring that would break the airline into three parts – a core network airline with hubs in Berlin and Dusseldorf, a new leisure airline, and the leasing business.

• Back in 2011, Etihad bought into Air Berlin pretty much to keep it from folding and of course to benefit from its landing rights in Europe. Etihad has a 30-percent stake in Air Berlin.

At this time, Air Berlin is in the middle of all this restructuring but is still plugging along. Would we use them again? Probably.

I flew Air Berlin from Dusseldorf to Stockholm back in May, and the flight was great. The plane was new and both legs flew on schedule. Because of my immigration status at the time, there were some sign-in complications at the Dusseldorf end, but then Air Berlin got it sorted quickly, professionally and politely.

Here are the most salient points, though you need to read the Air Passenger Rights page to understand all the fine print, exceptions and exemptions:

Refund or alternative transport:

If you are denied boarding or your flight is cancelled or overbooked, you are entitled to either:

transport to your final destination using comparable alternative means, or
having your ticket refunded and, where relevant, being returned free of charge to your initial departure point.

Long delays – if your flight is delayed by 5 hours or more, you are also entitled to a refund (But if you accept a refund, the airline does not have to provide any further onward travel or assistance).

Your airline must inform you about your rights and the reason for being denied boarding, or any cancellations or long delays (over 2 hours, although this may be up to 4 hours for flights in excess of 3,500 kilometers).

Food and board

You may also be entitled to refreshments, meals, communications (such as a free phone call), and, if necessary, overnight stay, depending on the flight distance and length of delay.

Financial compensation

In addition, if you are denied boarding, your flight is cancelled or arrives more than 3 hours late on arrival at the final destination stated on your ticket, you may be entitled to compensation of EUR 250 – 600, depending on the distance of the flight:

Within the EU

1,500 km or less – EUR 250
over 1,500 km – EUR 400
Between EU airport and non-EU airport

1,500 km or less – EUR 250
1,500 – 3,500 km – EUR 400
over 3,500 km – EUR 600
Before we forget, if – as in the case of my family – the airline does botch the flight in the U.S. (exclusive of weather-related cancellations), you are entitled to a free hotel room and other compensation under U.S. rules. This is important to remember, because demand for flights is at an all-time high while some airlines have been slow to add sufficient airlift.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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