Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Albanian Airlines: A cowboy outfit

I note with satisfaction that Albania’s Civil Aviation Authority has revoked the licence of Albanian Airlines, citing safety concerns relating to the technical conditions of its aircraft. This apparently followed the freezing by the Albanian authorities of the assets of the owner of Albanian Airlines ‘on suspicion of money laundering related to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.’ The revocation appears aimed at pre-empting a decision by the EU to add the airline to its blacklist of those banned from operating in the Union. In fact, it was thanks to the intervention of Italy – not exactly the least corrupt country in the EU – that Albanian Airlines avoided being placed on the blacklist; Italy has pledged to help the airline improve its performance. Even so, Albanian Airlines has squealed that the revocation of its licence was an example of unfair competition aimed at forcing it into bankruptcy, and has threatened legal action in response.

I have personal experience with Albanian Airlines, and I can confirm that it is a cowboy outfit, pure and simple. I am an experienced flier, and have taken several flights a year for most of my adult life, but my experience with Albanian Airlines stands out as the worst airline experience I have ever had. In June 2010, my girlfriend and I had a ten-day holiday in Albania, which neither of us had previously visited. Our experience of Albania and the Albanian people was almost entirely positive, but the holiday was almost torpedoed before it began: although our ticket had been booked nearly three months in advance, Albanian Airlines cancelled our flight without informing us or refunding our money. When we arrived at Stansted Airport on the day of the flight and discovered this, we phoned Albanian Airlines to demand that they arrange an alternative flight for us, which they failed to do, forcing us to buy a wholly new and expensive one-way ticket from Alitalia, for a flight that departed from a different airport.

Following our return to the UK, I complained to Albanian Airlines: its representatives gave me no apology and refunded less than what I had paid for the tickets, while refusing to reimburse me for any of the considerable expenses I had incurred as a result of their incompetence. I would take the airline to court, but its ‘sales office’ in London turned out to be a rented unit in a shared office building somewhere in the suburbs, with a dead phone line. As I write this, I can no longer find any trace of this supposed sales office on any page on the internet.

This sort of behaviour by an airline is not characteristic of the region; I have flown many times with Croatia Airlines and with Serbia’s JAT, and my own experiences with them have always been broadly positive (although last year my mother and father had a bottle of whiskey ‘confiscated’ from them by security staff at Zagreb airport as they were transferring to a flight to Split; the staff were operating a shakedown to divest passengers of goods bought legitimately at departure lounge duty free shops). Albanian Airlines, on the other hand, apparently behaves like this regularly, judging by the online reviews that it receives. According to a Judith Evans from the UK, ‘We booked to travel with this airline from Stansted to Tirana. We booked the flight on line in February and then two weeks before we were supposed to fly they emailed us to say the route had been suspended- no explanation just a one line email. We have been emailing them since to get a refund – nearly 4 weeks now and still have had no reply. I would never book with them again as their communication is non existant.’

According to an Arthur Selman from Australia, ‘Just like your earlier report from Judith Evans, I booked for 2 people a Frankfurt-Tirana leg in mid July. We also received an email telling us “This flight has been cancelled” no other info, no alternative, no anything! This leaves me trying to find alternative arrangements at this late stage – Not Funny! I still do not know the reason for the cancellation. Hardly the way the way to run an airline. ‘ And according to a Martin Clarke from the UK, ‘I was due to fly from London Stansted-Tirana with Albanian Airlines. I received an email informing me that my flights had been cancelled, again with no explanation. Fortunately, I had booked through ebookers who will ensure I get my money back, but it is a massive pain. This seems to be a common feature of Albanian Airlines, reading other reviews. My advice would be to avoid, its not worth the risk/hassle.’

As far as Albanian Airlines’ current woes are concerned, the revocation of its licence is to be welcomed, but I am shocked that it has managed to avoid EU blacklisting. Shocked but not surprised. Cowboy airlines of this kind are only able to operate in the EU because their behaviour is tolerated by the enforcement bodies in the EU member states. In the UK, the Regulatory Policy Group of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), and its precursor, the Air Transport Users’ Council (AUC), to which I complained about Albanian Airlines, proved less than useless. Over a period of more than a year, the CAA/AUC sent a total of three one-sentence emails to Albanian Airlines, asking them to refund my expenses. When the latter naturally ignored all three emails, the CAA/AUC simply informed me that there was nothing further it could do for me, and that I was on my own. The CAA/AUC’s supposed complaints procedure had served only to delay any legal action I might have taken by over a year. Doubtlessly, many aggrieved air passengers have gone through this fig-leaf ‘complaints procedure’, only to find that, a year later, they are no closer to receiving restitution but have lost any appetite for further pursuit of their claims. Under EU Regulation 261/2004, passengers are legally entitled to a set compensation from airlines for cancelled or delayed flights of this kind. Based on my own experience, I believe that the CAA is required to appear to be upholding this regulation, but has no interest in actually doing so, and that cowboy outfits such as Albanian Airlines operate in the UK because the CAA allows them to do so; indeed, acts as a buffer that shields them from passengers’ anger.

How good it is to know that, while Britain’s public services are being slaughtered in the name of deficit reduction, taxpayers’ money can still be found to support Potemkin-village bureaucracies of this kind.

Thursday, 8 December 2011 Posted by | Albania, Balkans | , , , | Leave a comment