South African Airways involuntary denies me boarding, keeps me in transit 24 hours, (almost) loses my bag and still has no idea how to fix it…

I have had my share of flight cancellations and missed connections over time, but what is unraveling here in Johannesburg with South African Airways right now is stunning even to me. I have been here almost 30 hours and I’m still not sure if I will make it to my destination (Dakar) anytime soon. There is no bad weather going on – it is just incompetence and mismanagement from South African Airways that has kept me grounded.

I must have spoken to 80% of the lounge and transfer desk staff in the last 30 hours and I’m still perplexed as to what is going on.

It all started with a rather routine flight from Nairobi yesterday morning. I’m on a United award ticket in business class from Nairobi to Dakar.

I got into Johannesburg for my flight to Dakar and was surprised to see that the flight for the prior day hadn’t yet left. It was delayed by a stunning 20 hours. At first my flight still showed as on time, but soon appeared with an 8-hour delay. The lounge agent mentioned that several aircraft went mechanical.

Now there was an earlier flight going to Dakar and there was business class availability. I was in ‘I’ class (Star Alliance award class for business class). ‘I’ class wasn’t available, but 4 seats in the D fare class were. In case of IROPS, fare classes do NOT matter and most airlines immediately re-book if there are seats available, to minimize the delay for passengers (and their potential liability for delays).

After talking to the lounge agent, I spoke to the transfer desk and eventually to a supervisor who made these claims:

– “We can never change a United ticket” (nonsense – they can, with or without endorsement)

– “We can never change award tickets” (again, nonsense – last year Asiana re-booked me in seconds when their plane went mechanical and I was on a United award ticket)

– “The change will trigger a change in your destination” (also nonsense – since my flight would only go to Dakar, not continue to JFK or IAD)

– “We cannot change an award ticket in case of IROPS into a paid booking class” (once again, nonsense – once IROPS is on, there is no distinction in booking classes really – it’s getting people where they need to be)

This took about 3 hours ( I sat down in the lounge and worked unless I needed to be on the phone). And guess what they eventually told me? They got my request approved, but by then the flight was oversold by 2!

In the meantime, my original flight changed to just 2 hours of delay – nice – so this should have been a happy ending.

However, as I went through secondary security and lined up for boarding, my boarding pass wouldn’t scan. No biggie, that happens all the time – but it was a biggie what the gate agent would say next – this flight would not go to Dakar, but direct to New York from Johannesburg. I had a confirmed business class ticket and a valid boarding pass and together with 2 other passengers I was involuntary denied boarding.

I later learned that the flight changed about 4 hours before departure into a direct non-stop flight (confusingly with the same flight number) and nobody ever told me (or the other passengers).

I went back to the transfer desk and was re-booked on to the next flight, which would be 22 hours later. The transfer desk had no issue giving me a seat on the next flight (the next day) and a hotel voucher for the Protea Hotel Transit. I stated my request to talk about an appropriate compensation and the agents mentioned that I MAY be able to get a voucher for use on South African Airways, but no cash or miles would be issued. I requested a letter stating the cause (and length) of the delay and asked for cash compensation, which was denied.

Today, I spent a good day exploring Johannesburg and went back to the airport in the afternoon – looking forward to getting my flight over with. I got a new boarding pass for my flight (the same as the prior day). However, it wouldn’t scan when entering security, which made me suspicious. The lounge attendant kept calling baggage tracing and surprise, surprise – today my booking suddenly showed that I was now on an entirely different flight. In fact my bags had already been already loaded onto this (wrong) flight.

We could not trace who had made that change (it wasn’t the transfer desk) or how but it happened. However, since my bag would have been offloaded if wasn’t on that (earlier) flight, I decided to just travel along with my bag and finally also get a boarding pass for this earlier flight.

Had she not investigated my request, I might have been flying to Dakar with no bags – or even worse, would have been denied boarding again.

I’m still in the lounge after 36 hours in Johannesburg. Let’s pray for the best as it boards in 45 minutes.

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