Norwegian caught in alleged bluff

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An alert and experienced traveler on board a Norwegian Air flight from Dubai to Oslo last fall sensed something was amiss when the pilot announced that a “technical challenge” would force a change of aircraft in Stockholm. He and other passengers ended up arriving in Oslo more than four hours late, but with the help of Norwegian regulators, he found out there was nothing  wrong with their Boeing 737 and Norwegian owes all of them compensation.

PHOTO: Oslo Lufthavn AS /Espen Solli

Weather problems don’t require airlines to pay out compensation for delays, but the situation involving a Norwegian flight from Dubai to Oslo did, even though passengers weren’t informed. PHOTO: Oslo Lufthavn AS /Espen Solli

Newspaper Aftenposten related the story on Thursday of Håkon Gudding, a strategic expert at large Norwegian telecoms firm Telenor who was among the 133 passengers on board Norwegian flight #5003 from Dubai to Oslo on November 14, 2013. Their aircraft, a Boeing 737-800, took off on time but the pilot later reported from the cockpit that because of unusually strong headwinds, they would need to make a refueling stop in Stockholm.

Gudding accepted that explanation, because the distance from Dubai to Oslo is among the longest a 737 can fly without refueling. But then the pilot came over the loudspeaker again, and seemed “clearly uncomfortable,” Gudding told Aftenposten. A “technical challenge,” the pilot reportedly said, meant that instead of merely making a relatively quick refueling stop in Stockholm, all passengers would have to disembark, claim their bags and then check in again for a new flight onward to Oslo.

“Technical challenge?” Gudding questioned. He wanted to know what that could be, since it would cause great disruption and delays for passengers. Gudding was especially keen to get an explanation after the hassles of an overnight flight, little sleep and several hours of standing in lines at Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport and waiting for a new flight to Oslo.

Gudding also realized that a legitimate technical problem with the aircraft could allow Norwegian to avoid paying as much as NOK 5,000 in compensation to each passenger, for a total of around NOK 400,000. Delays of more than three hours can trigger the same compensation rights for passengers as those for cancelled flights.

Called on the authorities
Suspecting that Norwegian wouldn’t release their own technical documentation for the flight, Gudding contacted the Norwegian aviation authority Luftfartstilsynet and asked for help. He quickly got it. Officials there were clearly interested in the case but also advised him to file a claim for compensation with Norwegian anyway, while they investigated.

Gudding did, but expected Norwegian would turn it down, only to be surprised when the airline responded favourably a month later. The airline blamed the delay on the need for more fuel, but also offered him NOK 3,300 (USD 550) in compensation for what the airline itself called an “extraordinary” occurrence. All told, Gudding and the party of six with whom he was traveling received more than NOK 15,000.

It wasn’t the money Gudding was out after, he said, but a desire to know whether Norwegian had bluffed them with the explanation of a “technical challenge.” He told Aftenposten that he couldn’t help wondering whether a “cynical economic evaluation” was behind the flight disruption, and Norwegian’s failure to alert passengers that they were eligible for compensation. Since he and his travel party were later granted compensation with no further discussion, he figured all the other passengers should be compensated as well.

Now they will be, if the word gets out to them that they’re eligile. Officials at Luftfartstilsynet, after contacting Norwegian, recently confirmed that there was no “technical challenge” with the actual Boeing 737 from Dubai but rather with two other Norwegian aircraft at Arlanda. Norwegian officials wrote in their report to the regulators that the airline’s operations center chose to swap the aircraft from Dubai with another flight, which meant that Dubai passengers “had to leave the flight at Arlanda and change to another to continue the trip to Oslo.”

Not Norwegian’s proudest moment
According to the authorities, the problem “clearly wasn’t with the Dubai aircraft, but it was taken out of its ordinary route to solve another problem that had come up,” Nanna H Vik of Luftfartstilsynet wrote to Gudding. She also wrote that Norwegian should have let the flight from Dubai continue on to Oslo as planned.

Officials at Norwegian, which has recently suffered a string of problems with its new intercontinental service and a surge of passenger complaints, insist they were not trying to avoid paying out compensation but admit they’re “not proud” of what happened.

“This was an operative decision that we with hands on our hearts can say that we are not especially proud of,” Norwegian spokesman  Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen told Aftenposten. He apologized for what happened to the flight from Dubai to Oslo and encouraged all passengers on board DY5033 on November 14 to submit claims for compensation. Asked why they can’t automatically receive the compensation owed them, Sandaker-Nielsen said that the rules “require passengers to take contact with us.” He couldn’t say how many already have.

In defense of the operations staff, though, Sandaker-Nielsen said that his colleagues “made a priority of reducing delays for hundreds of other passengers that day, but naturally, it shouldn’t have come at the expense of passengers on the Dubai flight,” adding that “this was a mistake.”

Importance of consumer activism
Ingeborg Flønes of Norway’s consumer council Forbrukerrådet said it was “important” that a passenger like Gudding followed up on the delays. “It can be absolutely critical that passengers take up these matters and don’t just accept an airline’s version of events.”

Otto Lagarhus, a pilot and former head of the aviation authority, told Aftenposten that he doesn’t think many airlines resort to the solution chosen by Norwegian, but economic issues can play a role.

“Those who manage operations prefer to find solutions that won’t unleash compensation demands,” Lagarhus said. “It can be tempting to offer an explanation (for delays) that won’t involve compensation. Passengers have almost no chance in practice to verify the explanation by checking information in the airlines’ internal reports.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund