Go Back  Fodor's Travel Talk Forums > Travel Topics > Air Travel
Reload this Page >

Iberia Airlines - No Customer Service, Public Health Violation

Iberia Airlines - No Customer Service, Public Health Violation

Aug 4th, 2012, 05:22 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 12
Iberia Airlines - No Customer Service, Public Health Violation

I had not flown Iberia for a long time due to previous problems with them. After a new nightmare, I never will again. I promised them I would publish my experience in travel/consumer forums, so here it is.

While traveling in Spain, I became ill with chicken pox and was forbidden to fly by doctors at a Barcelona Hospital, until I was no longer contagious. This did not happen before my scheduled return date. At first, Iberia refused to change my ticket without $300 in service/handling charges. But the real problem was I could not leave the return open, so if at the new date I still did not have clearance, I would have to pay the charges again.

Further calls got me an agent that said the change could be made if I faxed certification from the hospital to the airline's Medical Service immediately. I went to the hospital (the visit cost 65€), and sent the fax (I had to go to a public fax service although I was still contagious). THEN I was told the Medical Service did not work on weekends, and I needed to wait until Monday (my flight was on Monday). I called and called repeatedly, and no one would help. Each time I called, because I did not buy my ticket through Iberia's own web site, they made me use a toll number that charged €0.77 for calls from mobiles; I spent more than 40€ just on the service calls.

On Monday, the time of my flight went by without response from the Medical Service (agents kept telling me "not to worry"). That afternoon they told me the fax had been received/accepted... but they would not make the change; it had to be done by the web site (onetravel) where I purchased my ticket.

Onetravel (logically) said that, having already missed the flight, they could not do anything. Finally an Iberia agent "kindly" gave me a new reservation for Wednesday, for a charge of $433. The new reservation had a longer layover than my original one.

Aside from the HORRIBLE treatment (and Kafkian bureaucracy) to which I was subjected, the most egregious issue is that when I did travel, Iberia DID NOT ASK FOR CERTIFICATION THAT I WAS NO LONGER CONTAGIOUS (which I was carrying), despite their Medical Service having received a fax certifying that, four days earlier, I still was. Iberia will knowingly transport passengers with infectious diseases (which can be very dangerous for pregnant women and young children). In fact, by charging substantial fees for changes in such a circumstance, it ENCOURAGES passengers to hide any such disease and attempt to travel--they're certainly not going to check if this is going on!

When I complained to Iberia in writing, two agents successively answered that "each fare has conditions that the customer is responsible for knowing." However, my original ticket only stated that it was non-refundable. At Iberia's web site, clicking on "see conditions" ALWAYS gave me an error message. Clicking on "more conditions" only yielded a generic message stating that any changes are subject to handling charges, and that "IF this fare allows for changes, they have to be made for the same [or a higher] class of service initially reserved." There is no information on specific change penalties or medical emergencies.

I am in the process of researching consumer agencies and transportation boards to which I can appeal: a) for mediation in trying to get my money reimbursed (good luck to me!), and b) to report Iberia for a public health violation.

Should anyone here have specific suggestions as to agencies I can contact and procedures for complaints, I certainly welcome them.

However, I also mean this message as a cautionary tale. Travel Iberia at your own risk. There is no customer service to speak of. They do not care about the passenger. They do not care about passenger/crew safety. They just care about making a buck, and if you run into serious trouble you're on your own.

If anyone who reads this decides NOT to fly Iberia to/from Spain, *please* send them a note through their web site's customer service link, saying you chose a different airline after having heard the troubles experienced by the passenger who filed Claim C12071-1756548297. Only when they know their actions have real economic consequences for them will they start behaving differently.

Their tickets are not even cheap! I paid $1300 for a NYC>Madrid/BCN>NYC ticket.

Safe travels!
arkheion99 is offline  
Aug 4th, 2012, 07:48 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 12,008
I am truly sorry for your bad experience and I hope that you are able to sort things out to your satisfaction. I know it can be frustrating.

However, for future reference, you should consider buying trip insurance for your peace of mind.
bettyk is offline  
Aug 4th, 2012, 10:10 PM
Join Date: Jan 2006
Posts: 1,491
I too am sincerely sorry that you had such a difficult time. Falling ill when traveling is always unpleasant and problematic.

However, Iberia is in the business of transporting passengers from place to place. That business does not include rescuing passengers when problems such as illness arise. If you purchased a non-refundable, non-changeable ticket, then you really must reasonably expect that you will be required to pay for another ticket if you can't travel on the original booking.

This is why people purchase trip insurance. If you decide not to, and you purchase a non-refundable, non-changeable ticket, then you are gambling that everything will go as planned. You are free to do so, of course, but it's not very sensible to expect that the airline will then step forward and take care of your problem if something goes wrong.

To top it all off, you purchased your ticket through a third-party online booking service, further complicating your situation. And the rest of your story is a red herring, in my opinion. I don't understand why you would purchase an expensive ticket through a third-party website without reading the booking conditions and knowing what you are getting for your $1300. Further, the responsibility to refrain from traveling until you were no longer contagious was yours.

"However, I also mean this message as a cautionary tale. Travel Iberia at your own risk. There is no customer service to speak of. They do not care about the passenger. They do not care about passenger/crew safety. They just care about making a buck, and if you run into serious trouble you're on your own."

I understand you are upset and need to vent, but really? Iberia is a business. Of course they care about passenger and crew safety. And of course they care about making their business profitable - if not, they wouldn't be in business for long. If you run into trouble, the help they can offer is limited by the conditions associated with the ticket you purchased. This is why people purchase trip insurance.
julia1 is offline  
Aug 5th, 2012, 04:03 AM
Join Date: Aug 2007
Posts: 1,510
Actually, Iberia gave you excellent customer service explaining the policies and conditions.

cdnyul is offline  
Aug 5th, 2012, 10:18 AM
Join Date: Oct 2005
Posts: 63,579
Non-refundable ticket = must buy travel insurance if you can't afford to 'eat' the loss. End of story.

(But I doubt you will come back to see these comments. probably a one-time, hit-and-run poster.)
janisj is offline  
Aug 5th, 2012, 01:11 PM
Join Date: Mar 2012
Posts: 272

If you had spent any time reading on this forum, you would have understood that regular posters here have absolutely no sympathy for people who complain unless they are complaining about something that has also happened to them. However, they are right that travel insurance might have helped.

Of couse you are right that Iberia is not a customer oriented airline. Once they have your money they seem to believe that they have completed their responsibilities when they accepted it.
Sal9000 is offline  
Aug 5th, 2012, 01:17 PM
Join Date: Sep 2008
Posts: 228
This could have been avoided with travel insurance OR two doses of varicella vaccine.
MLTimes is offline  
Aug 5th, 2012, 05:51 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 12
To everyone who enjoys being swindled by airlines, I will simply point you to Department of Transportation Regulations normative 14CFR Part 382, "Nondiscrimination on the basis of disability in air travel," Section 382.51, "Communicable Diseases", states that if airlines know or suspect a passenger has such a disease, it must ask the passenger for certification of not being contagious and, without such certification, deny boarding. Regarding such denial of boarding, it states that: "If an action authorized under this paragraph results in the postponement of a passenger's travel, the carrier shall permit the passenger to travel at a later time (up to 90 days from the date of the postponed travel) at the fare that would have applied to the passenger's originally scheduled trip without penalty or at the passenger's discretion, provide a refund for any unused flights, including return flights." According to U. S. transportation law--to which it is my understanding all carriers flying to/from the U. S. are subject, Iberia committed a consumer violation. I have lawyer friends researching comparable legislation in the European Union. I have therefore filed a complaint with the New York Department of Consumer Protection, and will do so with Spanish agencies when I have all the information about European law.

The same U. S. regulations, as well as the International Health Regulations of the World Health Organization (2005), require airlines to monitor the condition of passengers with known or suspected contagious diseases (which Iberia did not do). The International Civil Aviation Organization, of which Spain is a member state, has issued a report (available on its web site), recommending that states make airlines legally liable when they fail to do so, and when they transport passenger with communicable diseases. According to these, Iberia committed a public health violation. I have thus filed a complaint with the U. S. Department of Transportation, and will file one with appropriate European bodies as soon as I have all the pertinent information.

I travel with travel life insurance and baggage insurance, and I carry ongoing medical insurance that covers me when abroad. I do not usually carry trip interruption insurance, because I travel so often that paying applicable fees when I want or need to change a trip is more reasonable for me than paying coverage for that every single time (I certainly do so when I decide to change a ticket). However, the particular circumstance of what happens when a passenger contracts a communicable disease of potentially great harm to people with compromised immune systems before travel is *different* from any *personal* circumstance in which an individual may be unable to travel due to illness. It is a matter of collective public health. U. S. law in particular considers it in a separate category from other types of schedule changes, which would come under individual airlines' fare regulations.

I paid the money up front so as not to risk infecting other passengers. Many people would just go ahead and travel. An unborn fetus, a baby, or someone who has a cardiac problem might die as a result. Those of you who think this is strictly a matter of passengers' responsibility, go right ahead and fly Iberia. Those of you who want to purchase additional insurance for something that is guaranteed to you by law are also free to do so.

I'm going to stick to airlines like, for example, United, which has a policy of reimbursing charges paid for travel changes due to serious illness. Or airlines like several others, which publish their medical change policies on their web sites.

Thank you for your interest in this matter.
arkheion99 is offline  
Aug 5th, 2012, 05:56 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 12
Like many people, I purchase tickets from web sites such as expedia.com, onetravel.com, and others that show you a range of schedules on different airlines to choose from. Never before did this constitute forfeiture of service. By telling me they would make the change, and making me wait for the Medical Service until after my flight was gone, Iberia precluded me from taking this up separately with onetravel.com.

I reiterate that Iberia gives you (or at least gave me) only an error message where the fare conditions should be (which is beside the point, as this case is covered by international regulations applicable to ALL fares).

I really am surprised that people in online travel forums have such an investment in protecting airlines' rights as opposed to customer rights. And that it is such a full-time activity for some, that they would deride a "brand new poster."

I can only say: GEEZ.

Thank you again for your interest in this matter.
arkheion99 is offline  
Aug 5th, 2012, 07:02 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 12
Go United!

"United will refund change fees and tickets in certain cases. All requests must be received before the expiration of your ticket and must be accompanied by proper documentation (see below). Once received, if applicable, a refund will be provided to the original form of payment minus a $50 USD processing fee*. This policy applies to the illness or death of the traveler, traveling companion, or immediate family members, as well as customers actively on jury duty at the time of planned travel.

*Except where DOT 14 CFR Part 382 applies"
arkheion99 is offline  
Aug 5th, 2012, 07:08 PM
Join Date: May 2003
Posts: 3,864
Here's what I don't understand about your complaint: Let's say Iberia is guilty of not asking you for documentation that you were healthy enough to travel. Wasn't it also your responsibility to provide that documentation? Why did you not volunteer the information? At check-in, simply say, "You should see a notation in my reservation about a health issue. Here's the documentation from the hospital that all is well and that I'm cleared to travel." It seems to me that you were complicit in this portion of the problem.

Airlines generally waive change fees for a death in a passenger's immediate family, but not for illnesses. I'm not sure you would have had any better luck with United.
Jeff_Costa_Rica is offline  
Aug 5th, 2012, 07:54 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 12
"Wasn't it also your responsibility to provide that documentation?" In short, no.

Ethically, I shouldn't fly with chicken pox and I didn't. LEGALLY, in the U. S.: the law makes it the AIRLINE's responsibility to ASK for that documentation because, if they don't, people with dangerous diseases who want to go unnoticed will slip into planes. The law makes it the PASSENGER's responsibility to be ABLE to PRODUCE THAT DOCUMENTATION when asked for it, FOR THEIR OWN PROTECTION, at the risk of being denied boarding if they don't have it. Even in this later eventuality (the passenger being denied boarding), the requires that the airline permit the passenger to fly at a later date, within 90 days, for the same fare, and without additional penalties.

That is why, in the United policy stated above, you see they will charge a $50 fee, UNLESS travel is delayed pursuant to this regulation. End of story.

Whether or not I had taken it out and offered it (which I was not required to do) does not change the fact that Iberia Airlines violated U. S. law on a flight to New York by not living up to its legal (*and* ethical) responsibility. It was required to facilitate a ticket change, monitor the health of passengers going onboard, and not penalize the traveler in that situation. It complied with NONE of those things.

What airlines try to get away with when they make their own policies is truly appalling. In the U. S., when those policies are in conflict with D.O.T. regulation, the latter rules. Sadly, it is still up to customers to seek redress through labyrinthine channels (more complicated with international airlines) when they are wronged, and many just desist--or just find it easier to rely on outside insurance.

However, everyone knows how insurance works, and when passengers rely on outside insurance to protect them from things that are the airline's responsibility, they drive up premium costs for everybody. They also encourage airlines to act irresponsibly because they know they will never be accountable.

I live up to my own ethical responsibility not to travel when I know I can infect, say, someone on chemo, who will be endangered by something like chicken pox. I'm damn well going to hold Iberia accountable for living up to ITS ethical AND legal responsibilities.
arkheion99 is offline  
Aug 5th, 2012, 09:52 PM
Join Date: May 2007
Posts: 7,722
Chicken pox is a very common illness among children. But it is not a notifiable disease.
As not classified as such, it could have even been illegal if the airline had stored this information according the EU Data Protection directive.

On any flight with a few young kids on board you have a high risk that they have or had one of the typical diseases that you typically get as a kid and afterwards are immune against.

In addition, I think you read the DOT regulation the wrong way. It is not phrased as an obligation for airlines to scan the medical status of their passengers but as a right for the passenger not to be denied boarding because of any communicable disease, which in fact would also be the common cold, or, if the airline insists that the passenger is not healthy enough to fly, they must provide free re-booking.

Anyway, this is just guessing and jumping to conclusions, so I think you did the right thing to ask for legal guidance. It will be interesting to hear how your lawyer will handle this issue and what will be the outcome eventually.
Cowboy1968 is offline  
Aug 6th, 2012, 07:31 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 17,063
Citing US law or policy is moot in this situation; the flight was originating in the EU and is therefore subject to EU law and regulations.

I've looked over (admittedly, not comprehensively - that would take ages) some of the EU publications on illness and air travel, and can't find any area where Iberia violated EU regulations in your case. But maybe you (as the affected party) can do some research to see where they acted against EU standards and/or the contract of carriage. I feel bad for your situation, but don't see how Iberia behaved illegally or unethically.
Gardyloo is online now  
Aug 6th, 2012, 07:49 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 12
Interesting response by Cowboy1968.

Varicella is included in WHO lists of diseases of concern; although some documents refer only to "communicable diseases" generically. It is transmitted through direct contact or inhalation of particles from the fluid of lesions, both possibly magnified on a plane. It is a great risk to persons with weak or compromised immune systems. The doctor in Barcelona acted correctly in issuing me a prohibition to fly until cleared.

You are right in observing that this particular article of the DOT normative is phrased as a right of the passenger not to be denied boarding for communicable disease (unless unable to provide certification of non-contagiousness), and states the limitations of any such denial. (It is interesting that it classifies "communicable diseases" as a disability--with all the implications of that term for the protection of the sufferer). Other sections of the DOT text, and other documents issued by various agencies speak to the obligation of the carrier to act proactively to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

Although this particular case is complex, because it involves so many different normatives and more than one jurisdiction, the bottom line is pretty clear: *having* an official medical report of a contagious disease (provided by passenger under instructions from medical authority), Iberia did not act according to regulations to prevent possible spread of that disease, or to protect the passenger's right to non-discrimination.

The ICAO's Facilitation Division has issued an suggestive report on airlines' legal responsibility. It deems it airlines' obligation "to conform to applicable international health regulations and the laws of the countries in which their aircraft land," and points out that "in selling an airline ticket for travel by air, an airline offers a composite service, not only to carry a passenger from point A to B, but also to ensure that transportation is accomplished in a safe and sanitary manner." The report considers that airlines have an obligation to act on the *presumption* of illness (i.e. when a passenger looks "sickly")--much more so, one would think, when they HAVE RECEIVED MEDICAL CERTIFICATION IN THEIR OFFICES of the existence of a communicable disease. Finally, it states that "airlines have to face certain legal issues themselves in terms of their conduct."

Procedures direct one to start with the DOT complaint, so that has been filed. I'm not sure whether the New York State Consumer Protection Department, with which I also filed a complaint, will claim to have/not have jurisdiction over Iberia (it has offices in NY), but we'll see. They will direct me to the appropriate agency if they don't. I'm awaiting information on the European side of this, and will act according to what I receive. But I have indeed ascertained that foreign carriers flying into the U.S. are bound by U.S. regulation on those flights.

I do not expect this to become an individual court case. But by filing official complaints with the appropriate security and consumer agencies, one can ensure that an airline's patterns of infringement are on record, and legal/governmental action can be taken at that level. Also, for a fine to be issued where it may appropriate. It would be nice to get my money back, but I'm not counting on that.

Thanks for your input.
arkheion99 is offline  
Aug 6th, 2012, 07:51 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 12
"The laws of the country in which the aircraft land."
arkheion99 is offline  
Aug 7th, 2012, 07:10 AM
Join Date: Jan 2006
Posts: 1,491
Interesting that you now obviously are doing extensive research on your issues of concern and have obstensibly become an expert of sorts. Curious that you didn't devote as much time and effort previous to your trip to unearthing the booking conditions.
julia1 is offline  
Aug 7th, 2012, 07:15 AM
Join Date: Jan 2006
Posts: 1,491
"I do not usually carry trip interruption insurance, because I travel so often that paying applicable fees when I want or need to change a trip is more reasonable for me than paying coverage for that every single time (I certainly do so when I decide to change a ticket)."

Do you know that annual coverage is available, ideal for someone who travels "so often"? Might be worth looking into if this happens often...
julia1 is offline  
Aug 10th, 2012, 07:22 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 12

I have looked into trip interruption coverage; that's why I decided after considering the costs quoted to me times the number of times a year I travel vis-à-vis the frequency with which I have to change a ticket that it makes more sense to just pay for the occasional change if I want/need it. I carry other types of coverage. And while I am certainly going to look into other options, I object to relying on private insurance for things that are the airline's responsibility. The matter of my money is completely secondary to me; the horrendous ordeal I was subjected to while they assured me for 48 hours that YES, they WOULD make the change after I provided documentation to their Medical Service, is inexcusable. And I'm surprised no one in this forum really thinks it is at all a problem that an airline does not have a system in place to ensure that, if at all knowable/avoidable, it does not transport passengers with contagious diseases (as international regulations say it must).

The bigger lesson here is (sadly) to stick to American companies easier to hold accountable through U.S. consumer agencies and government channels. Iberia knows perfectly that it's bound by applicable laws of the countries to which it flies (and in this case, travel originated/ended in the U.S., and the change was made via U.S. Iberia offices, and charged in dollars), but it also knows the bureaucratic difficulties and slow pace of claims procedures. Although it has a high record of BBB complaints, for example, it has never answered one. People generalize about Americans being litigious, but in the end courts are often the only effective recourse.

The other great lesson--and here I was quite at fault--is to stick to companies with a good customer service record. I knew that Iberia's is legendarily nonexistent, but still decided to give them another try, because my preferred route on another airline no longer existed and previous problems I had with them were years ago. Learned the hard way, I am quite done with them, as their typical response to problems is one big and unapologetic OOPS. [On the way there, I traveled with a vegan friend who ordered the vegan meal option. This showed on their records, but guess what, no vegan meal available for her. OOPS].

As to having done research previously, as I said, I was perfectly aware that changes involve penalties, and I am familiar with the general range of these charges. I didn't need to access Iberia's specific conditions to know this, which is great because they were INACCESSIBLE anyway (completely on purpose, I'm sure). In THIS CASE, the fare conditions are, however, a moot point, because the DOT's regulation applies to all fares.
arkheion99 is offline  
Aug 10th, 2012, 07:27 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Aug 2012
Posts: 12
Perhaps one reason why they so pressure customers to buy tickets through their own web site is because they thereby make the transaction occur in Spain, further hindering claims against them from other countries.
arkheion99 is offline  

Thread Tools
Search this Thread

Contact Us - Archive - Advertising - Cookie Policy -


All times are GMT -8. The time now is 06:18 AM.