Why can’t this one go bust, please?
The aftermath of the events of 11 September has seen many respectable international airlines accumulating severe losses. But those which actually went belly-up, Swissair and its Belgian subsidiary Sabena, did so because of a five-year-long unreasonable hunter strategy performed by the SAir Group’s ex-CEO Philippe Bruggisser, a path to which the terrorist attacks presented only the final blow. And whilst the German charter carrier LTU, another SAir subsidiary, only just avoided bankruptcy by state intervention, I had secretly hoped for the bereavement of another one: LOT Polish Airlines, of which 25% is owned by, guess who, the remains of the former Swissair holding company SAir. But it appears that LOT, despite its terrible service record, will manage to survive.
For three years in a row, LOT Polish Airlines have been awarded the title of “Best Airline in Eastern Europe” by Business Traveller magazine. I have checked my boarding passes again. LOT Polish Airlines. Polskie Linie Lotnicze. Same airline, no spelling mistake.
The same airline that has given me numerous headaches on over forty flights Berlin – Warsaw, Düsseldorf – Warsaw, and on to further destinations in Poland and beyond. The airline which made me swear I would never again work for a company which obliged me to book the cheapest Business Class ticket available.
Before I let you into my disastrous experiences with LOT, I have to ask how such titles are awarded by Business Traveller and similar journals.
Every year the British frequent flyer journal Business Traveller asks its readers to complete a survey embracing everything from airlines and frequent flyer programmes to luxury hotels and car rental agencies. The survey is split down into endless categories by product and region, e.g. best hotels on every continent, best hotel worldwide, best hotel chain, etc, etc.
The problem is that you are required to answer every question. Best hotel in South East Asia? I don’t have a clue. Can’t afford them anyway. But the Oriental Hotel and the Siam Inter-Continental, both in Bangkok, enjoy excellent reputations. So one year I will nominate the Oriental, next year the Siam, if I still remember which one I have chosen the year before.
It must be the same with LOT. Voted for by all those wannabe frequent flyers who read Business Traveller in airline lounges and hotel lobbies, but have never been to Eastern Europe, let alone flown with LOT. “They won the title last year so they must be good,” says the uninitiated and votes for LOT as Best Airline in Eastern Europe, starting just another round in the self-perpetuating cycle of backslapping.
Thus your Britishexpat.com travel correspondent, the defender of truth, feared by the Lonely Planet for his revealing articles, has once again embarked on a selfless mission to free humankind from the perils of yet another suffocating airline.
The truth about LOT
In my rage against LOT Polish Airlines, let me start with the few positive aspects. I will then escalate my bad experiences, closing with LOT’s most disgusting flaws. This is called rhetoric. The last impression will stick and you will avoid LOT from then on. And that’s exactly what I have in mind. For your own good sake, of course.
LOT are cheap. Although they can’t beat the dumping prices offered by CSA Czech Airlines and MALEV Hungarian Airlines for both business and economy tickets, they are far cheaper than western airlines and often provide the best combination of timetable and price.
LOT offer Business Specials basically throughout their complete network, and these are usually 30% to 40% cheaper than the official IATA Business Fares. Thus LOT beat the Business Specials available on selected routes from Lufthansa, Austrian and Scandinavian by another 10% to 20%. Economy Specials are also available and particularly cheap on newly opened routes, but you will often find the same price tickets from other, better airlines, although that may result in a stopover in Frankfurt, Prague or Vienna.
If your employer’s travel guidelines compel you to fly on the cheapest Business Class ticket available on a reasonable timetable, than you are almost sure to fly LOT on flights to Poland and many other destinations in eastern Europe.
Reasonable fleet & network
LOT flies to around forty European cities, around ten cities in Poland, and a handful of long-distance destinations, mostly in North America. Most flights operate on a hub-and-spoke system to and from Warsaw, although there are some decentralised routes within Poland and around a dozen international flights from other Polish cities.
The fleet is built around Boeing’s 737 workhorses, and long-haul flights are operated with Boeing 767s. Short commuter flights are served with ATR turboprops, and LOT introduced Embraer Regional Jets in the year 2000.
When LOT joined the Qualiflyer Group in Spring 2000 after Swissair’s buy-in, new routes were introduced to link Warsaw with other Qualiflyer hubs and to extend the alliance’s reach into Eastern Europe, which had largely suffered from Austrian Airlines’ defection to the healthier Star Alliance.
After Swissair’s and Sabena’s burial the Qualiflyer Group is now but a caricature of an airline alliance. But LOT’s autonomous Central and Eastern European network should serve well to woo new partners.
Seating onboard LOT aircraft is narrow and uncomfortable, both in Business and Economy Class. The seat configuration is 3 – 3 on the Boeing 737, 2 – 2 on the ATR turboprops, and 1 – 2 on the regional jets. And that’s the same for both classes. LOT, inventor of the middle-seat-experience in Business Class.
The turboprop flights are particularly dreadful, because LOT employs the noisy first generation ATRs 42 and 72, and has fitted them with extremely narrow and scratchy seats.
Slightly more comfortable are the flights on the 50-seat regional jets with shiny leather seats. These operate on routes with little traffic. And because LOT serves many of these regional routes in competition with such established airlines as Lufthansa, there are usually few people on board, which gives you some extra space.
As I’ve said before, I have flown with LOT around forty times on half-a-dozen routes and believe me, the food was ALWAYS EXACTLY THE SAME! Not a single change in the menu in two years. That would just be bearable if at least this one meal was good. But unfortunately it is not.
In Business Class you receive a small plate with what I believe to be some kind of cold liver pâté, served with a Polish jam as a topping. A leaf of lettuce on the side and a cold, soft roll, and that’s it. The Economy meal consists of two rolls, one with ham and one with cheese, one slice each. After ten flights you just can’t face it any more and opt for a no-frills flight. Even the food on the Trans Siberian Railway is better. The only way to endure the flight is plenty of Bloody Marys with Polish Vodka.
Fraudulent practice, allegedly
[Allegedly - The Ed] LOT collects twice on some tickets and will never reimburse you the overpaid amount unless you threaten them with legal action. How? Say you are booking a LOT flight through your corporate travel agent. Once arrived in Warsaw you decide to stay a day longer and thus need to have your ticket changed. So you call your travel agent, rebook, your agent confirms the change and might even forward a fax to you with a change of booking certified by LOT’s local office, paid through your corporate account with the agent (if ticket restrictions require a surcharge, as with most Business Specials and Economy fares).
Upon your check-in at Warsaw airport, LOT for sure won’t know anything about the change, let alone the payment. You may even show them the fax from their very own office, and they will still insist that the change of booking and payment are not registered in the system, and will require you to pay again on the spot. If you refuse, they simply won’t let you board the flight. Full stop. You can ask for the supervisor, the station manager or the Pope himself, they won’t change their minds. It’s happened to me three times.
All you can do later is to hand in the receipt to corporate bookkeeping, hoping they will pay again for something they have already paid for. Or bombard LOT with letters hoping that after half a year they will react and reimburse you, only after you’ve checked the Warsaw Yellow Pages for a good Polish lawyer.
LOT’s ground service in Poland is disastrous. If you are departing from Warsaw and need to deal with the local ticket office, then God help you. Whilst your fellow passengers check in, pass through passport control, board the plane and wave at the spectators on the visitors’ terrace from the plane which is already rolling along the taxiway, you are still queueing in front of an understaffed ticket counter, with no express desk for Business Class passengers.
On one of these occasions, queueing for half an hour just to spend another half an hour watching an absolutely clueless lady trying to change my ticket, I got a little bit annoyed. Annoyance turned into outrage as I went through the usual procedure: asking for the supervisor, the station manager, and ultimately for the Pope. I received a very eloquent reply: F*CK YOU!
This put a sudden end to my relationship with LOT Polish Airlines. I returned my ticket, bought a new one from Lufthansa, and embarked on a pleasant flight to Düsseldorf. The next day I persuaded our CFO to adapt our corporate travel guidelines. I have never since flown with LOT.
These experiences are particularly disappointing because I have come to appreciate the high service standards of other Polish firms. Poland in general has established a very friendly business environment. But LOT Polish Airlines, although now partially privatised, still prefer to run on a communist mentality in some service areas.
LOT Polish Airlines
Hajo’s World rating: 3 out of 10 points
IATA Code: LO