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02.04. Digital Madness

When technology makes life a nightmare
I have always thought that computers and mobile phones, which can do everything from opening doors to doing the dishes, should make life easier for mankind. Contactless payment, swipe and go, and online bookings with credit cards replace cash, ATMs, bank tellers, travel agencies and shops. But it’s not true! 

As online fraud is on the rise, banks and businesses are incorporating so many security controls into their electronic payment processes that often it is easier, and better for the nerves, to go to the store in person than to make a, as you think, quick transaction online. During the Covid-19 crisis, this turns some processes that should be child's play into nerve-racking impossibilities, unless you travel around the world with a TAN generator (that’s a machine to create a PIN code) in your pocket.

Example: Booking a flight ticket.

I was in Buenos Aires and I got cold feet, rebooked my return flight to New Zealand, which I had originally booked for April 16, to March 22, and paid the premium economy supplement with my VISA card. This worked because the card is registered with Air NZ.

But suddenly Air NZ announces the end of its direct flights to Buenos Aires (without informing the passengers concerned - but that's another story). A new flight with a different airline has to be found. The husband at home buys a ticket online from the Chilean-Brazilian airline LATAM for 22 March, the flight goes to Auckland via Santiago. Chile closes the border, whichever changes the husband makes to the booking, every day LATAM cancels the short trip to Santiago, but happily announces that Santiago - Auckland is still going. But how to get to Santiago if there is a transit ban?

Missed flight, new flight, mercy flight

I find out from the French embassy’s website two hours too late that on Friday, March 20, LATAM flights via Santiago take off, I would have even come to Auckland in Business Class at an acceptable price! I have a flight for 25 March, which is an endless time away, given the panic that is growing daily. And I have the promise of the German Embassy to get on one of their repatriation flights; asylum offers from friends in Germany trickle in, should I not make it to New Zealand from my old home country.

After a day of self-isolation in my huge but lonely hotel room in Buenos Aires, where the curfew started on March 19, I get nervous, keep looking for alternative flights and discover free seats on Qatar Airways. The internet connection is miserable, I go to the reception where I am allowed to use the hotel computer. I book a 37-hour trip around the world via Sao Paulo and Doha instead of the 13 hours with Air NZ.

But the last step does not work: the payment. The Sparkasse in Germany, where I got my MasterCard and where all my interest-free money is stored, sends the security check request to my mobile phone and demands a new registration. For this I need the TAN generator, which is in a drawer at home! (It works like this: You put the credit card into the slot of the device, connect to the bank’s website, this creates a PIN code which is then sent to your TAN generator, you type the code into the transaction page, and the payment gets confirmed. Or not…) 

I didn't take the device on vacation, because I had booked all accommodation and bus trips in Patagonia in advance, and on site you can pay with your credit card at the terminals in restaurants, shops etc without any problem, with signature, pin code or, for small amounts, with nothing at all.

The VISA card from LBB Berlin has been absolutely useless for several months

I try to pay with my ADAC-VISA card from LBB Berlin. Hopeless. Their online banking hasn't worked for months, calls are not put through; they send me emails, saying that I can check my bank statements online, but to do so I would have to re-register, using a secret code which would be found in the details of a 1-cent transfer from the bank. This transfer has never happened. I call the emergency hotline four or five times. (Luckily I have a cheap roaming package that has 200 minutes per week for incoming and 200 minutes for outgoing calls. I have used up almost every minute of 800 minutes in 10 days!) Every time I get disconnected. 

"The high number of accesses to the new credit card banking system has temporarily overloaded the systems and thus led to a large number of calls to customer service", ADAC tells me a few days later when someone finally answers my Facebook message. "The bank is working around the clock to resolve the remaining problems." The result remains the same: no money. And the 6,000 euros the ticket costs would have exceeded the credit card's limit anyway. 

I call a friend in Germany, she has her TAN generator next to her and makes the booking. But bang! The payment doesn't work because her card has a limit of 5.000 Euro. 

I still don't wake up my husband in New Zealand. But I know I have to leave here, and emails from Qatar Airways, saying I have two and a half hours to complete the bookings, are the starting signal for my quick departure. 

Without valid ticket to the airport

Although I don't have a valid ticket, the requirement to pass the police controls on the way to the airport, I pack my suitcase and order a taxi. I show the police officer the booking message on my mobile phone and say that I have the ticket but have to pay for it at the airport. It is kind of true. My taxi is free to carry on to the airport.

It is 1 pm, the Qatar Airways counter at the airport, as I learn later, is closed until the check-in at 7:30 pm. I try again with the MasterCard of Sparkasse where all my money sits, it’s the same security problem. It is night in Germany, the weekend begins. I call the 24/7 service hotline. The man says he can't do anything for me, TAN and money or: no TAN, no money.

I say there must be a way to manually unblock the card in such extraordinary situations like this pandemic, I have plenty of money in my account and the 6,000 euros I need are well below the card limit; I can answer all registered security questions or arrange for whatever he needs to identify me. There MUST be some way out of the crisis. He says the only other option he has is to send a new access code BY SNAIL MAIL to a friend in Germany, who can then forward it to me! I thank him and hang up.


Part 2

An Airline’s Unfathomable Chicanes

In the meantime, my husband is awake in New Zealand and on the phone with his bank. They say they could lift the security lock for a short time, he transfers money to the account to which I also have access and a card, so I can pay the sky-high price of 6,000 euros for an economy class seat. (Why is this not possible at the Sparkasse in Germany?) 

But in the meantime a Facebook friend from England, who has been following my attempts to get out of Argentina for several days, has offered to buy my ticket. The second attempt works, I load the ticket and the boarding passes onto the app and am happy and incredibly relieved - at least for two hours, when I suddenly receive an email from Qatar Airways. The airline threatens to cancel my ticket if I can't present the credit card with which the ticket was paid for at the check-in!

This is followed by an exchange of 20 to 30 emails during several hours between Qatar Airways and the cardholder, who has to verify that she has allowed herself and thus indirectly me to use her AMEX card. They ask her to send them photos of her credit card, passport and the last monthly statement of her credit card account as well as a screenshot of the flight booking transaction. 

Alternatively, she has the option of presenting the documents directly at a Qatar Airways office. It's night in England, the country is in lockdown, everything is closed, driving around is not allowed, and the nearest airline office would be 160 kilometres away anyway! But thanks for the suggestion.

Oh, some digits are not blurred!

She photographs and delivers all the requested documents with angelic patience. In my calls to the airline's airport staff, who are waiting behind closed doors and with whom I am pledging for a touch of humanity and compassion, I am assured that I’ll get on the flight and that I should not worry, a solution would be found when they would open the check-in counter. But they say that my friend would have to send a credit card photo again, one on which the middle digits should be blurred! (She complied.)

In the meantime, it is 6:30 pm and the Qatar Airways headquarters in Doha strike out for the final blow: Now they want a photo of a US document from my friend - green card, driver’s licence or passport, because she paid with an American credit card. She has none of them, because she only has a holiday home in Florida. We consider all the hours of hard work have been for nothing, and I go the airline’s check-in counter and wait until the staff arrive at 7:30 pm.

There they talk about a guarantee or warranty payment, in other words: I should use my MasterCard, which works on their little machine, to guarantee the 6,000 euros my friend has paid. I say, I am not a bank and don’t give credits, there is an easier way. I ask my friend in England to cancel the ticket she has booked, as Qatar Airways refuses to accept her money anyway, and there are still enough free seats at the same outrageous price. The debit disappears from her online banking and it stays like this for several days. 

Then I buy a new ticket with different booking reference and ticket number. And I really fly home. Some of my friends and acquaintances all over the world stay awake until I give the all-clear and post that I am on the plane.

The Encore

A week later I receive an email from Qatar Airways telling me that they are processing my request for a refund of my ticket and I would receive the money within two to four weeks. Which request? Which ticket? Which money? I would like clarification.

It can only be the first ticket, the one my friend in England bought and then cancelled, as  I have used the ticket I paid for for my flight back home. She checks her account and discovers that somebody at Qatar Airways must have charged her card to the tune of 6,000 euros - the money the so-called customer service refused to accept during the hours of harassment at the airport in Buenos Aires, treating first me and then her as a potential fraudster.

I immediately send an email to the airline, I still have the address from the traumatic exchange at the airport in Buenos Aires. While then they fired off replies and requests every few minutes, my inbox now remains empty, with the exception of an automatic confirmation email with a new case number. One day, two days, who knows how much longer. I hope they contact my friend directly and apologise for the stress they have caused her. And I keep wondering what kind of human beings these people are?


** Translated from German with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) - then edited by the author (Sissi Stein-Abel) **


Update 5 April 2020
The only way to get in touch with Qatar Airways was to post messages on Twitter to @qrsupport. My friend has received an email, telling her that she would get her money back after 28 days! First they take it illegally and breaking their own regulations because she failed the verification by not being able to provide a US ID, and then it takes them 28 days to recitify their mistake.

They now have told me they might process her/my request faster. Until this has happened I will take every opportunity on social media to address their wrongdoing. While there is always someone in customer "support" to answer my messages within a short time, it takes them 28 days to click a button and send the money back they refused to accept in first place.

Update June 2020
My friend has got her money back a little while ago. But still in awe how this could happen at all.




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Update 07.04.2020
LATAM Airlines 
also playing dirty

What I think of Air New Zealand and Qatar Airways I have told you on this and on a separate page. They are both playing dirty tricks on their customers and abusing them as banks, offering credits and vouchers instead of just processing the refund.

And here comes in the next one. It is LATAM Airlines, a Chilian-Brazilian company. My partner had purchased a fully refundable ticket for me after Air NZ had abandoned their passengers in Argentina. But then they constantly cancelled the first leg of the flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago, and without it I would not have got across the closed border to Chile, so there was no way to get to Auckland.

After rebooking I had a flight with them for 25 March but this was far away, Argentina had closed the border and gone into lockdown, and New Zealand was in lockdown mood. That's why I jumped onto the taxi, got to the airport, bought this nearly NZ$ 11,000 ticket for the Qatar Airways flight. And that's exactly why we had got a fully refundable ticket with LATAM Airlines - to be able to take every opportunity to get back home.

Back home, I filled out the official online application form for a refund and got a case number. Nothing happened until last night when I received an email from LATAM Airlines, saying "that we seek to generate special protocols so that all the necessary security measures are applied to each of our flights, for this reason we are offering the following alternatives: [...]

Long email short: They offered to change the date, flight or route for travel before 31 December 2020. It left me wondering (and furious) what they do not understand about the word REFUND??? And worse: Why don't they understand that filling out the refund application form means that the customer wants a REFUND?

After firing off some angry tweets and emails, four hours later I received an email, saying: "We want to invite you to submit your refund request clicking here, fill the information with your reservation number [...]"

I was forced to fill out the same refund application form as two weeks earlier! (And after choosing the option to have the money transferred to a bank account, I had to re-do it because the system would only accept bank accounts in the USA - obviously because the rebooking had gone through Miami, for whichever reason! Then the system went into maintenance before I could try it a third time.

It's all chicanes that enable the airlines to keep their customers' money for longer and increase their cash flow. 

I am out of pocket by more than NZ$ 18,000 (10,000 Euros) because Air NZ didn't operate the return trip of my original NZ$ 2,556 flight (excluding seat selections) - which I had upgraded to Premium Economy after rebooking for another more than NZ$ 1,200. 

Air New Zealand owe me about 
NZ$ 2,000, LATAM Airlines nearly NZ$ 6,000, and thanks to all their cancellations I had to buy a Qatar Airways ticket to the tune of more than NZ$ 10,000. And nobody in all these "support" centres cares. 


Update 22.04.2020
LATAM saga continues
After complaining to LATAM on 07 April 2020 that I had to fill out the online application form for the second time, I received the following answer:

"Along with greeting you, we wish to inform you that we have processed the reimbursement of the booking made the ticket number [xxxxx].
In the next few days you will receive an email with details of the process."

Of course, you would have thought that the refunding process was back on track. But no! On 22 April 2020 I received the following email:


"We have generated your Travel Voucher N°[xxx] for a total amount of [xxx] USD which is linked to the refund of your ticket [xxxx].

It is valid for 12 months from the date of issue and you may use it for the following LATAM services: tickets with flights operated by our company, purchase of extra luggage, payment of penalties or excess baggage, fare differences, etc."

And in smallprint at the bottom of the email:

"If you prefer the amount in cash you can exchange your Travel Voucher on LATAM.com. Please consider that we are facing a high amount of requests and consequently there might be a delay in processing your refund."

Are they completely mad? What don't they understand? Do they have staff who cannot read? Are their official application forms for a refund not for refunds???

It is again emails and Twitter, and LATAM keeping up their cashflow with my partner's money.


Update 19 June 2020
I am still waiting for the refund from LATAM Airlines. 

On 28 May they wrote to me:
"The bank transfer of your travel voucher is currently under process."

On 11 June they wrote:
"We would like to inform you that transference is still in process, however, due to the high demand in our reimbursement procedures, the cash refund might take longer than usual, however, we are still working in order to provide you a resolution as soon a possible."


Gracias! Praise for 
Aerolíneas Argentinas
In this context it is great to see that Aerolíneas Argentinas have transferred the refund for three cancelled domestic flights on 
28 May 2020 despite telling me on 
9 April that it could take a minimum of three months. And I didn't have to send them any reminders! Gracias, Aerolíneas Argentinas!
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