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Sat, 18. May 2013

KLM and Schiphol Airport - where incompetence complements incompetence Created: 18.05.2013 12:45
TLDNR: KLM sells/advertises trips with short 40 minute stopovers at their main european hub airport Amsterdam Schiphol. Avoid these. While in theory they have everything that is needed to make this work pretty reliably, they are too dumb to use the facilities they have, making it far more of a risky gamble than needed.

I recently had a flight from the UK (Glasgow) to Germany (Nuremberg), booked through the KLM website. Since the way KLMs network of flights is organised centers around their main european hub airport Shiphol in Amsterdam (Netherlands), it naturally involved a layover there. KLM claims that a 40 minute layover is enough for flights within europe (50 minutes for intercontinental flights), and the website will therefore suggest/sell tickets taking this into account.
When I first read that some time ago, I was a bit sceptical whether 40 minutes was enough, but the KLM website advertises this as practically the best invention since sliced bread. They also have these videos, e.g. the "easy transfer" video here, that show you how they intend to make it work: Your baggage gets transferred automatically of course, and passengers with short connections can use priority lanes at the passport control. So far for the theory, and I actually used this successfully before, but now have to conclude that I was just lucky it worked, because KLM and Schiphol will do nothing at all to make it work properly.
I was flying with two friends. Our flight itinerary said we would land in Amsterdam at 15:50, and our connecting flight would leave at 16:30. All times mentioned in the following come from my memory, so they may be slightly off - but you should get the general idea. While we were still in the air approaching Amsterdam, our pilot already told us (among lots of other things we could not understand due to his mumbling and the aircrafts noise) that we would be landing on the outermost runway, meaning that we would have to "taxi" for around 20 minutes before reaching the terminal. This is one of the problems of Shiphol, they have runways that are far far away from the actual airport facilities, so the plane just drives around on the ground for up to 20 minutes (not exaggerating!), going over a bridge over the highway and then driving between some canals in the process. This can be entertaining if you have the time, after all you're getting a free tour through half of Amsterdam, but in this case it was just annoying, and the first small source of delay: We arrived at our parking position at 15:55.
Unfortunately, we could not leave the plane then. According to a loudspeaker announcement, we had to wait for the hand-luggage that had been stored in the hold to be placed next to the exit. What a great idea to let all passengers that did not even have any hand-luggage stored in the hold and that have short connecting flights wait for another 5 minutes for absolutely nothing! And then we still had to transfer by bus.
Finally having reached the actual airport a few minutes past 16:00 and knowing we were now really really late, we hastily made our way through the airport. We were luckily able to pick up which gate we had to go to from one of the big monitors on our way, so we did not have to stop at one of the self-service terminals to get that information. And as expected, it was a gate (B28) at the completely opposite end of the airport, a walk of more than 20 minutes at normal walking speed. However, we're young and relatively healthy, and therefore walking pretty fast, although at that point we weren't running yet. We quickly reached passport-control, and this is where things really started to go downhill.
As explained in the nice "easy transfer" video, they have priority lanes for first class and short-connecting-flight-passengers. That's actually only half the truth: They have a sort of priority-priority-lane for short-connecting-flight-passengers that can jump right to the head of the queue in the priority lane. That however was closed off when we arrived, and the two incompetent idi... employees that are there to direct passengers to the right queue just directed us to the normal priority lane. Big mistake. Because the priority lane lead to just two open passport control stations, and both were apparently blocked by people leading lengthy discussions with the immigration officials. A big queue had built up already, and it was not moving the slightest bit. We quickly realized that the non-priority queue moved a lot faster than our priority queue, something that the two employees whose only job it is to direct people should also have noticed a long time ago. If they had not been that incompentent, they would have directed us to the non-priority queues instead, or better yet: They should have let us jump to the head of the non-priority queue. But even when we overheard other passengers complain about the non-moving priority lane, they just said they didn't know what to do, and ordered them to stay in the priority lane.
So we stood there, and spent minutes waiting for the queue to move again. When it finally did, the employees directing people then suddenly started to use the priority-priority-lane after all, and put people through that, meaning that people that had arrived 5 minutes later than us passed through passport control before us. After having wasted close to 10 minutes in the queue, we finally reached passport control and passed through it in just a few seconds, as is to be expected with European passports entering Schengen-Europe.
Behind the passport control was security. There was really nothing to complain about here - there was no queue at all, and I was through in no time at all. My two friends needed slightly longer, one had to take off his hiking shoes because they thought the metal inserts would confuse the metal detector, the other had to show what was inside her backpack, but all in all there was no significant delay here - we were through in less than 5 minutes.
After security we could see on the monitors that our flight was by now listed as "gate closing" and continued to sprint.
Shortly afterwards we heard the infamous announcement that you hear in Shiphol all the time: "Passengers (absolutely indecipherable mispronounciation of our names) travelling to Nuremberg, you are delaying the flight. Immediate boarding please at gate B28, or we will proceed to offload your baggage." - after this we started running as fast as we could, and finally reached the gate less than 5 minutes later - it was now almost 16:25, so in theory 5 minutes before the scheduled departure, but too late nonetheless, as the gate usually closes 10 minutes before departure time. So in other words, just to spell that out: when they sell you a 40 minute layover, in reality it always is just a 30 minute layover.
As expected, we were told at the gate that we were too late and that they were in the process of unloading our baggage. This is actually what I consider another display of major incompetence: As we were not boarding, they had to remove our luggage from the hold, meaning searching through all of the luggage in the hold and removing our three bags. This takes a few minutes. If they had simply cancelled that process as we arrived, and let us board, they would actually have delayed the flight LESS, because us boarding would surely have been faster than continuing to search the hold for our three bags. But their thinking clearly is "fuck passengers".
We were then told that there was another flight to Nuremberg later that day, and that we should simply rebook at the transfer desk T2 in the main hall. If the attendant at the gate was lying on purpose to quickly get rid of us or just did not know due to KLMs complete lack of organisation is unknown, but as we found out at the transfer desk a bit later, that flight was full. As were all other flights to Nuremberg in the next two days. I simply was put on the waiting list with the comment that I would almost certainly get a seat, without being offered any alternatives. My two friends got handled a bit better, and took the option of taking a flight to Munich instead of spending possibly multiple days on the waiting list, having to stay in the airport all the time. There is good train connectivity from Munich to Nuremberg, so this was not a bad alternative, although KLM refused to pay for the train ticket.
This is another thing that pissed me off: KLM denied any responsibility for the missed connection. I overheard them saying "It's not our fault, it's the airport facilities" to another couple who had missed their connection. Well, I'm sorry, but that excuse just is not valid. First and most importantly: You, not any third party but YOU KLM, did sell me the tickets for this very short connection, so it is your responsibility to try everything to make it work. That could have included just letting us board when it was still technically possible when we arrived late clearly not due to our own fault. As I already explained, it probably wouldn't even have caused any delay. More generally speaking, it could also include giving passengers another five minutes to make it to boarding when you know that the incoming flight was late, IF that will not delay the flight. You might think that waiting for late passengers would always delay the flight, but that is not true: It happens in Shiphol (and in fact it did happen to me on that same day), that even after boarding is complete, the plane will just stay at the gate for another ten minutes, because there is so much congestion on the runways that it cannot start anyways. In this case there is absolutely no need to hurry the boarding, but they still do.
So, since you failed to do anything at all to make me catch my connection, you should at least have moved your lazy ass after the missed flight. Of course, you cannot just throw passengers off a later flight to make room for me, but offering alternatives to "sit in the terminal for 5 hours hoping you get a seat through the waiting list" would have been the least. As would have been a food and phone-home-on-KLMs-expense voucher.

I actually did get a seat on the later plane to Nuremberg, but I'm not sure what would have happened if I had not - I doubt KLM would have paid for a hotel room for me without major discussion, if at all. My two friends flew to Munich, and paid for their own train tickets from there to Nuremberg. If they had also taken the waiting list offer, two of us would have had to stay in Amsterdam over night - the plane I was on was completely full.

To wrap up this post, I have this related picture below: It shows one of the KLM self service checkin terminals at Glasgow airport.

These nice error messages kept popping up on all their self service terminals, whether someone was currently using them or not. In general, KLM seem to be real "experts" at running their computer systems... The online-checkin on their homepage frequently throws nonsense-error-messages as well.
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