- Primera Air is an ultra-low budget airline that recently began making transatlantic flights.
- Primera announced it would be ceasing operations on October 2.
- I was scheduled to fly with them on July 21 from Paris to New York. My flight was canceled after a four-hour delay. I ultimately had to book a flight for $US1,200 that had a six-hour layover in Oslo. Primera still has not fully refunded me.
- The experience shows the potential perils of low-budget travel, where a cramped seat at least means you got on the plane.
I had never heard of Primera Air. But an airline booking site had a cheap seat for me for a direct flight from Paris to New York on July 21, so I bought it as the return flight from my week-long summer vacation in Europe.
Primera bills itself as the newest of Iceland’s budget airlines, joining established carriers like WOW Air. While it’s owned by an Icelandic tour company, Primera Air is actually based in Latvia with a Danish operating certificate. (These byzantine international set-ups are common among budget airlines, as they cut costs.)
Founded in 2003, Primera began transatlantic flights this year. It made waves last summer by announcing transatlantic flights for as low as $US99 beginning in 2018.
I’m fine with being squeezed in if I’m paying a little less, and I regularly fly through carriers like Spirit. As for Primera, plenty of people, including my colleague Mary Hanbury on the retail team, have had perfectly pleasant experiences.
I thought my direct flight from Paris to New York City would be the same – uncomfortable, but economical.
But I never even got on our plane.
After hours of delays turned into us being bused to a hotel that didn’t even know we were coming, I ultimately had to drop serious coin on a new one-way flight to get home. As of October 1, I still haven’t been fully refunded the $US1,950.89 that Primera owed me.
Here’s what happened:
I arrived at Paris-Charles De Gaulle around 5 p.m. for my 6:50 p.m. flight.
Primera doesn’t offer mobile check-in, so I checked in at the counter. There was no line, and it was speedy and straight-forward.
The 200 or so other passengers and I waited in the terminal for the flight. By 6:30, 20 minutes before our flight, we still weren’t boarding.
Once it was clear we were delayed, I joined several other passengers asking about what was happening. They didn’t have any information for us – at all. Not where the flight was, when it was expected to be ready, or why we were delayed.
While it was clear we were delayed, the screens hadn’t been updated with that information.
I passed the time by eating goat cheese from duty free and watching Netflix on my phone. At least the airport had good Wifi.
But by 8:30 p.m., I was getting exhausted and nervous. My parents called Primera from their US numbers, but no one picked up.
Primera’s media team sent me an emailed statement on July 24, a day after I had reached out for a comment for this article. It read:
Our regular procedure in case of delay and cancellation due to operational, technical or other reason is that as soon as we receive information about the issues that have an impact on a scheduled flight, we send a message to passengers and request meal vouchers as well as hotel from our ground handling partners in particular airport.
However, I didn’t receive a meal voucher – or any message at all – from the airline on that day.
By 9:30 p.m., tensions were high. Hordes of passengers had surrounded the gate agent at this point. He still had no answers for us.
Some people were furious, banging on the tables and yelling at the gate agents. One passenger even tried to steal a pen from the gate agent’s booth when he wasn’t looking. She threw it back on the table when he asked for it back.
Primera passengers were camped out around the airport – people were laying on the floor.
By 10:30 p.m., Primera finally had an announcement.
For what seemed to be the first time, the gate agent began to make an official announcement over the microphone.
As predicted, our flight was canceled. We were instructed to look out for an email from Primera and to retrieve our bags from baggage claim.
I asked the gate agent if we would be placed on a new flight. He said, “I hope.”
In the statement emailed to me on July 24, Primera apologised and told me my flight was canceled for technical reasons and “operated by euroAtlantic on behalf of Primera Air.”
Meanwhile, my fellow passengers were taking to Twitter:
Hey @primeraair thanks for canceling our flight from Paris and ignoring my requests for new flight info. Horrible service. @YourEuropeEu any advice? ##familyvacation #stuckinparis #flights #primeraair #nightmare #horribleairlines #europe
— Rachel Perez (@hevgenjazlisse) July 21, 2018
Never fly @primeraair – our flight was delayed, delayed, and now CANCELLED out of CDG. I just want I be home ????
— Nelle McDade (@nelle_mcdade) July 22, 2018
Sincerely hope @primeraAir complied with claims and reimbursement because there are enough ppl on this flight alone for a nice lawsuit.
— TeeTee (@SweetTee720) July 21, 2018
— Cristina Bertarelli (@M2YBM) July 22, 2018
We went through customs and baggage claim. People had mentioned receiving an email with some information, but I never got it.
As Primera told me in the statement for this article:
“Messages about flight status were sent to all passengers whose contacts were provided to us. We investigated your booking and as you had a reservation via Kiwi.com, all updates about flight status were sent to Kiwi.
“We don’t have passenger’s contact information in case it’s made through another platform.”
I made my booking through Kiwi.com, a Czech Republic-based flight booker.
Due to Primera’s inability to contact passengers if they didn’t make a reservation through their website, I was stranded in a foreign country, had no idea where I was going to sleep, and how I was going to get home.
I asked around and eventually got the email.
People were walking towards the doors to line up for buses going to an unidentified hotel. I asked on Twitter for someone to send me the email, and for the email from someone in line.
I ultimately received it. It read:
Unfortunately, we have to announce cancellation of flight PF21 CDG EWR 21 JULY due to technical reasons.
Please, contact ground handling Alyzia for hotel accommodation.
For assistance, we can offer you the following options:
1. Full refund, please request via [email protected]
2. Rebook on any other date or flight operated by Primera Air, please request via [email protected]
3. Purchase new flight ticket on your own and we will reimburse the costs up to 1500 EUR per passenger, all receipts with bank details must be sent to [email protected]
For compensation, please contact us via [email protected]
We apologise for such inconveniences.
We boarded the bus and offloaded at a Marriott near the airport. Tensions were still high.
Even though it was clear we wouldn’t be sleeping in an airport terminal, everyone around me was still tense. Many were checking flights, calculating how many more hundreds or thousands they would have to spend to get home.
A young couple behind me in line at the hotel seemed particularly stressed. They were missing layovers in New York and Detroit in order to pick up their children from grandparents in Minneapolis, and then fly as a family back to Portland.
It showed me how lucky I was, sort of. I wasn’t missing any connections as I live in New York. And unlike another passenger, who was in tears, I wasn’t missing work the next day.
Folks were split on whether they should wait for rebooking information with Primera or book an entirely new flight home.
For the latter option, I was hesitant. Online comments and even a dedicated @donotflyprimeraTwitter account strongly indicated that my one-way flight might not ultimately be reimbursed. And next-morning flights to New York were going for $US1,200.
— Bernardo (@mexber) July 22, 2018
My room at the Marriott was clean and quiet. It was a reprieve from the hours-long ordeal I had just experienced.
Admittedly, I got lucky with my relatively short wait in line – it was at most 30 minutes until I got in my room.
The front desk receptionists at the Marriott were pleasant and charming, despite the sudden rush of customers. Apparently Primera also hadn’t alerted them about the hundreds of people that were about to arrive in their lobby, one receptionist told me as he checked me in.
I asked if this sort of thing happens to them a lot. “With this airline, yeah,” the receptionist told me.
I was also told by the receptionist that Primera would tell them about new flight information in the morning, so I set my alarm for 7 a.m.
The next morning, however, the front desk told me that Primera didn’t have any flights for us.
With few options, I booked a flight through Norwegian Air. This flight was scheduled to depart from Paris at 10:40 a.m., have a six-hour layover in Oslo, and arrive at 7:30 p.m. in New York.
It cost $US1,249.27.
My original booking, with three flights, including a direct flight from Paris to New York, cost $US898.00.
I took an Uber to the airport, shared with another would-be Primera passenger. While I got into my room quickly last night, he had apparently waited until 3 a.m. for his own room.
The rest of my flying experience was fine.
My six-hour layover in Oslo, where I decided not to leave the airport due to exhaustion, was predictably boring. We were also detained on the JFK airport’s tarmac for two hours.
I arrived home at midnight on Sunday and had work the next morning. I was supposed to arrive at 8 p.m. on Saturday so I had some time to adjust from jet lag.
As of October 1, Primera Air owes me $US1,450.51.
Primera owed me $US1,950.89 in total for the combined cost of my new Norwegian Air flight and passenger rights compensation as required by European Union law.
I sent Primera my request for compensation for my flight on July 23. They also owe me, under EU regulations, 600.00 euros ($US701.62) for cancelling my flight.
On July 30, flight booking site Kiwi.com issued me a $US500.38 refund for my canceled flight.
I have called and emailed Primera several times over the past month. I was told that it will take up to 30 days for a response.
On August 21, Primera informed me that they would compensate me the remaining 619.33 euros ($US724.21) to pay for my Norwegian Air flight, and would deliver this to my bank account in the next 40 days.
The airline didn’t mention the additional $US701.62 required by EU law. When I emailed them to follow up about that legally-mandated compensation, I immediately received this response:
Please accept our apologies and rest assured that we are making every effort to respond as quickly as possible, at the latest within 30 working days.
In an internal email that surfaced on October 1, Primera director of operations shared that the company would be ceasing operations and filing for bankruptcy on October 2.
Anders Ludvigsson, director of flight operations for Primera,wrote in an email that Primera was in significant financial trouble after a corroded plane had to be taken off the fleet last year and several planes did not deliver.
“On behalf of Primera Air team, we would like to thank you for your loyalty. On this sad day we are saying Goodbye to all of you,” Primera wrote on its website.
“Kindly understand that the usual options for contacts (via email or phone) can not be offered any longer,” the statement continued.
I called the customer service hotline. It was still accepting calls, but no one picked up after 15 minutes of calling.
I then emailed the press contact to see what would come of me and many other passengers who are waiting for compensation. The response:
Unfortunately, as Primera Air has ceased operations and all the employees are let go, the press office isn’t available any longer.
The entire experience shows that an airline’s real salt is revealed not when equipment is working perfectly and everything is going according to schedule, but when things go wrong.
Airlines like Primera Air save costs by not hiring as many customer service representatives or using third-party staffing agencies to fill those roles, Business Insider’s Benjamin Zhang reported.
In a statement, Primera told me that they are hiring more customer service agents “to make sure that in case of delayed or cancelled flight we are able to help the passengers.”
They also are less likely to have partnerships with other airlines where you can fly out in case something is wrong with your flight. Think of the SkyTeam air alliance, comprised of companies like Delta, KLM, and Korean Air. If your flight from Seoul is canceled with Korean Air, for example, they have the option to just place you on a Delta flight.
But when my flight was canceled, they weren’t able to just push me to another flight. When Primera couldn’t get its new Airbus planes in June this year, they had to cancel all of their transatlantic summer flights from Birmingham, UK – putting the kibosh on thousands of summer travel plans.
They have since halted all of their operations from Birmingham.
“If they don’t resolve the problems, they will likely back off from Atlantic market or disappear,” George Hamlin, an airline consultant with 40 years of experience, told me. “If you want to be in the long term, you need to avoid dying in the short run.”
We typically think carriers like Spirit and RyanAir are irritating because the seats are squished or they charge you too much for a carry-on.
But the real downfall of flying on the super-cheap is when things go wrong, Zhang told me. There are fewer customer service reps to help you, and they might take months to refund you.
As Hamlin said, “You pay for what you get.”
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