When Rules Get In The Way Of Common Sense Customer Service: Air Serbia Edition

Filed Under: Air Serbia, Travel

Last October I flew Air Serbia business class from Belgrade to New York, and had a phenomenal experience. This is a fairly new route for them, and is also their only longhaul route, so it was clear how much pride they took in their product. From their great lounge in Belgrade to the onboard service, food, and wine, the entire experience blew me away.

However, when I give an airline credit for what a good job they do, I feel like it’s only fair to also share experiences that leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Last night Ford and I flew from New York to Belgrade to Tivat (in Montenegro) on Air Serbia. I redeemed Etihad Guest miles for the tickets, and the New York to Belgrade flight was in business class, while the Belgrade to Tivat flight was on a small prop plane without a business class cabin, so we were in economy.

The experience was solid all around, including the flight from New York to Belgrade. However, there’s one aspect of the experience I found disappointing.

As mentioned above, we booked these tickets using Etihad Guest miles, and those reservations need to be made by phone. When I made the reservations with Etihad Guest, they told me that since it was a mixed cabin itinerary, I would need to book the New York to Belgrade and Belgrade to Tivat flights on separate records. This is because they don’t allow mixed cabin awards on some partner airlines, apparently.

That’s not a huge deal, since the connection was on the same airline, so being on two records doesn’t typically have many implications.

I had a suspicion it may cause an issue in one area, though, and unfortunately I was right. I was hoping that common sense would prevail, but nope.

When we landed in Belgrade we headed to the Air Serbia Premium Lounge, which is a lovely space. I presented our business class boarding passes from New York to Belgrade, and then our economy boarding passes from Belgrade to Tivat (since the plane didn’t have business class). The friendly associate scanned the boarding passes and took a few moments to look at them in the computer.

“You can’t use the lounge because you are in economy.”
“But we are coming from New York in business class and connecting on a flight without a business class cabin.”
“Yes, but I don’t see that in the computer since it’s a separate ticket. If it were the same ticket you could use the lounge.”
“I understand it’s not in the computer on that ticket, but you can see our business class boarding passes from New York. This is because I booked the ticket through Etihad, and they don’t allow mixed cabins.”
“Yes, but Etihad is a separate airline and we have our own policies.”
“I understand, but Etihad owns a stake in Air Serbia, and Air Serbia even uses Etihad Guest as their frequent flyer program.”
“My hands are tied, I am just following the rules.”

Let me be clear here, I never believe in letting frustration out on front line employees, and this lady was just doing her job… down to a “T,” unfortunately. So I’d like to think I was being polite to her, and wasn’t going to escalate the situation further with her.

It’s unfortunate when rules get in the way of common sense. The only reason we didn’t get lounge access was because we were technically on separate tickets, which was only because Etihad doesn’t let you mix cabins on one ticket. Etihad isn’t just any “partner” — instead they have an equity stake in Air Serbia, they arranged the lease of the plane that makes the New York route possible, and Air Serbia even uses Etihad’s frequent flyer program.

So we ended up paying for lounge access, at the cost of 45EUR per person (it’s a special trip, and I thought it was worth it). However, it certainly left me with an unfavorable impression of their customer service. Not because the attendant wasn’t friendly — she was — but rather because of the lack of common sense that was being applied to the situation.

When we finally entered the lounge, we were literally the only guests there.

After we were in the lounge for about 30 minutes, the lounge attendant came up to us and said “here’s a small gift for you,” and handed us two plastic Air Serbia luggage tags. Hmmm…

In other businesses common sense often prevails, but unfortunately the airline industry isn’t one of them, in my experience…

  1. That’s sad to hear. I have often have good experiences with Air Serbia albeit only in short haul economy. Are you considering doing a give away of those luggage tags? I for one would be interested…. 🙂

  2. Hosea What does a lounge in Serbia of a Serbian airline have to do with Trump’s America?

  3. How dare she follow the rules. What is wrong with these people. We dont need no stinkin rules

  4. Frustrating for sure, but at least she was polite in explaining the policy. I give her credit for the ID tags. She didn’t have to do that and her initiative in trying to make lemonade out of lemons is commendable. She probably agreed with you in that it is a stupid policy so she tried to make the best out of a crummy situation.

  5. Cool so it sounds like you’ve got a strong argument that EY should refund your €90. Will you let us know if they do?

  6. My wife and I flew Air Serbia earlier this year. We had booked a $247 r/t fare JFK-Bucharest via Belgrade. We upgraded to business class at JFK for $600 each. The trip was on the same aircraft you flew and was a great experience for good value. Since we were on a single ticket, we were allowed access to the lounge even though our connecting ATR aircraft had only coach seating. The lounge attendant gave us the same luggage tags.

  7. IMHO it was worth trying but the agent was correct. You were on 2 separate PNRs and few airlines will allow you access to a non-Arrival lounge even thou you were entitled to use it for your 1st flight. Once you landed your 1st tkt no longer existed.

    I too would have tried only difference I wouldnt hold it against any carrier , or agent if declined and for sure wouldnt have said common sense didnt prevail. It did prevail, common sense says you werent entitled to the lounge and if it meant that much to gain entrance (why you needed to for 30 mins is beyond me) then simply pay up, which you did but it seems you must bash the carrier when they dont think as you do. The agent even said according to you had the Y flight been on the same PNR as the Biz flight you would have had access, so Eithad is to blame sort of. But if their policy is no mixed cabins on any 1 tkt then youre SOL

  8. It was right. Loungeacess is given upon departure flight and you flew in econony on the last flight so you should not have access in any way.

  9. It seems that displeasure for Air Serbia is unwarranted. I’d hit up Etihad to refund the lounge costs and see what they say about it.

  10. I’ve been in a similar situation in Mexico City and the Aeromexico lounge staff looked at both tickets and happily let us in. I guess the whole “está bien” concept doesn’t fly in Serbia 🙂

  11. Often, employees are stuck following rules that they may not agree with but have to follow. Did you ask for a manager? That’s exactly the kind of situation that a manager is there to fix.

  12. I will be taking exact the same itinerary as yours in June. JFK-BEG-TIV. Isn’t there a Priority Pass lounge in BEG? Please share your trip in Kotor. Have fun.

  13. Similar situation occurred last year. My wife and I were flying Delta One from JFK to EDI in late July. During our 4 hour layover I was looking forward to using the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse due to Delta’s partnership with Virgin Atlantic, which specified on the websites that Delta One passengers flying between the US and UK would have access to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse. When I handed my boarding pass to the lounge dragon I received a “I’m sorry flights to Edinburgh aren’t part of this arrangement.” My response to her was basically, isn’t Edinburgh part of the UK? She called a supervisor who said no sorry this is a new flight and we haven’t been instructed to allow access. Bunch of crap that was, as both websites never mentioned the destinations in the UK included or excluded, simply said flights between the US and UK in Delta One. Again I thought common sense would prevail, but alas nope!

    Ended up “slumming it” in Delta’s lounge and having Shake Shack for dinner due to Delta’s lack of quality food options.

  14. Sounds like their policies worked well – for them. They got you to pay an additional €90.

  15. I think you did a great job – at least it appears so based on your explanation of the details – in letting the agent know of your frustration while being polite. While she may not have had any authority to let you in and was doing her job “to a ‘T'”, polite feedback to front-line customer service personnel does have a way of getting back to management. That, coupled with a polite missive to both Air Serbia and Etihad, may get you both a refund and perhaps some progress in synchronicity between the airlines down the road.

  16. BEG also has a Priority Pass lounge which isn’t half-bad and you could’ve gone there instead of paying to get into the JU lounge.

  17. Same same but different: BA doesn’t check luggage through on separate tickets. BETWEEN BA AND BA flights…
    Check In guys looked at me when i asked… and said, it’s one of the more stupid policies THEY don’t understand either.

  18. I think asking for a manager would have made sense here. Not for the purpose of saying the agent was incapable of common sense, but as a way to relief the agent of responsibility of not following the rules. If the agent let you in when the rules says she wasn’t suppose to, she may be disciplined after the fact. Whereas, a manager may have the authority to make this common sense exception.

    This is an issue of how much wiggle room an airline gives to front line employees.

  19. The world is full of rules that don’t make any sense. Some people are smart enough to use common sense and find ways around it. Others are just plain by the book. Not much we can do.

  20. Are you going to the Aman? While you are there, make sure to visit Kotor (its about 10-15 minutes in the other direction from Tivat Airport) as its gorgeous.

  21. Many airlines are like this. I paid $3400 for one way First ticket on ANA from Chicago to Seoul and in Narita they wouldn’t allow me in the first lounge since flight to Seoul was in business

  22. Common sense is passengers in economy class all the way are more deserving for that lounge! I can’t believe common senses are so different! The fact is your are in economy for second leg and you are not a gold member of Air Serbia. Somehow you believe you are so special that deserve to use the lounge! Wow, I can’t believe this post!

  23. Sorry Lucky, I actually side with “The Lounge Dragon”, but I’m also surprised don’t you hold AirBerlin or Alitalia status via matching? Wouldnt they offer access via that card?
    You even knew that you shouldnt get access, separate tickets has drawbacks as if there are delays or in this case lounge access.

  24. Like others I can’t blame the staff at the lounge entrance as the policy is what I would assume. It is the flight you are departing on and not the one you are arriving from. While one can get lounge access based on arrival flights especially if you are in transit, I would not go as far as to say it is standard policy. What is not common is not allowing mixed cabins on the same record. Most airlines and all that I have flown on have no problems with having mixed cabins on the same record.

  25. If you thought it would be an issue then why didn’t you contact the airline before to see if they could provide a lounge pass. This way you wouldn’t of had that issue. If you see it as an issue ahead of time, why not address it?

  26. Looks like you boys got gamed by the system.

    Seriously, while frustrating, the airline was in the right. The LD probably doesn’t have the ability to bend the rules anyway. As you said, you suspected this would be the case. Don’t think it warrants a rant.

  27. Lucky, you just needed to make a post titled “IM GOING TO THE AIR SERBIA LOUNGE” and then another in quick succession titled “IM HAVING TROUBLE WITH EXERCISING MY RIGHTS.”

    That should get the attention of the etihad PR department again. Provided you do 3 10 picture previews, an introduction and a fitting by fitting, room by room review of the lounge that they rebuilt with velvet walls while you got this INJUSTICE sorted out.

  28. As far as I know the Air Serbia lounge is one of the few you could even use with Etihad Guest Silver and shouldn’t you at least have that?

  29. @Crisstoffer
    It’s not his fault. The continuing segment did not have a business class cabin, and under the rules, you’re given lounge access based on the original segment.

  30. I guess you are visiting Kotor or Budva, so welcome in “my” region and greetings from Albania 🙂

  31. Wow. What a shameless attempt at getting Air Serbia to refund you 40-something euros. Wow. Pathetic.

  32. I think a lot pf people missed the point here. As a frequent flyer, I’m sure Lucky understands that lounge access is based on the class you’re flying next. If he was flying his next fight in coach by choice, then yes, he had no reasons to rant, but in this case, it was because the onward flight had no J and the Etihad agent couldn’t book mixed cabins under the same PNR (otherwise, he would’ve received access as another reader pointed out).

    I had a similar situation with WY when on a long transit through MCT. My first flight got delayed, resulting to me missing my connection, so they rebooked me on EY, which would leave earlier than the next available WY flight though still much later than my original WY flight.

    I was denied entry at the WY lounge in MCT because my next flight was issued under EY. Call it a First World problem, but the lounge available for EY passengers is not comparable to WY’s (e.g.: no dedicated rest area, lower F&B offering, no free massage, etc.) Hence, with 5 hours waiting time on hand, I insisted that I get entry to the better lounge (which I originally paid for – sorry, not my mistake my flight got delayed and rebooked).

    Eventually, a manager got involved and I got what I deserved.

    Bottom line, policies are made for a reason, but any policy can be overridden if it unnecessarily creates inconvenience to customers, esp. when they have paid for the service. This is where a manager should’ve been called.

  33. Sounds like just about EVERY airline! Nobody knows their own policies and they keep changing hourly. Enjoy your stay in Montenegro!

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