Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Delta Air Lines Comedy of Errors

It was just a one-day trip to Houston and back from Raleigh.  Four flight legs, outbound connecting to IAH through Memphis, with the returning connection through ATL.  On a darned expensive fare, too. How much could go wrong, really?  Yet Delta Air Lines put me through a day of hell.

Everything appeared to begin well.  Figuring that a busy Monday morning at RDU right after the federal government “Sequester” had kicked in would probably back up the security lines, I arrived almost two hours early at 4:45 AM for my 6:40 AM departure. 

Sure enough, even at that ungodly hour, the regular lines behind the TSA portals were horrendously long.  I went through the Elite line and still had to wait a few minutes, but nothing like the poor folks in the other rope lines.  Right on the opening time of 5:00 AM I was walking into the Delta Sky Club.

First thing I did, as has been my decades-long habit, was to ask the agents if there were any earlier flight options to Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH).  Nope, they reported, every alternate connection was full. 

Then I verified that my flight, DL 5332, to Memphis was on time.  Everything was perfect, they said, smiling.  Having taken the usual precautions, I settled in to read the paper over a bagel and orange juice.

At 6:00 AM I walked the short distance from the Sky Club to my gate to prepare for boarding.  I chatted up the gate agent.  She was chirpy and nice, and said she expected to begin the boarding process as soon as she checked out the aircraft to ensure the crew was ready.

To her surprise, however, the crew wasn’t anywhere to be found.  She made a call and was told they were late getting to the airport from their hotel and were now snarled up in the long security line.  This was frustrating to those of us waiting, as we had had the foresight to get there early in order to be at the gate on time.  Why couldn’t the airline crew do the same?  After all, this wasn’t their first flight (we hoped), and this was their job

We Delta Elite flyers grumbled amongst ourselves and waited.  As precious minutes ticked by, I felt the familiar anxiety growing that I’d miss my connection.  The gate agent continued to make the same excuse for the still-missing crew up until 6:30 AM.  They were stuck at security, she said.  We all wondered why the heck the crew didn’t simply cut the queue as airline crews are entitled to do?

The gate agent was still saying the crew was lost at security when she got a call from Delta Operations with news that the crew was in Atlanta and would not be arriving RDU until about 9:00 AM.  This meant, of course, that I’d miss my Memphis connection by about three hours.  The gate agent sheepishly made that announcement, and then she literally threw a bunch of Delta disruption cards up on her counter for anyone to grab so they could call and rebook themselves.

What the hell?  How could the gate agent not have been informed until 10 minutes before flight time that the crew was hundreds of miles away?  How could the Delta Sky Club staff not have known from their screens that the flight was going to be three hours late when I asked at 5:00 AM?

This one-day trip was for a 90 minute business meeting in Houston at 1:00 PM.  Getting there late would have negated the entire purpose of the trip, and I knew I had to work hard to make an alternate plan that would get me to IAH by about 11:00 AM, or else the trip was moot.  Therefore I rushed back to the Delta Sky Club to obtain the assistance of the two Delta agents there.  By now it was closing in on 7:00 AM, and I knew I didn’t have much time.

Turns out another Delta flight also had problems (a cancellation to Baltimore), and there was a line of Elites waiting to be helped.  Luckily, one of the Sky Club agents, the one I’d inquired with at 5:00 AM, recognized my plight, and she felt Delta owed me for making such a mess of things, particularly because I’d made the point with her earlier that you can’t be too careful these days when flying to make sure the flights were operating on time.  She took me ahead of two other passengers, but then couldn’t find anything on her screens on Delta or any other airline that would get me to Houston in time.

As archaic as a printed schedule may seem in the all-digital age, sometimes a hard copy can be a lifesaver.  I grabbed the March edition of the American Express Skyguide from my briefcase, which I continue to subscribe to.  Sure enough it showed a nonstop flight RDU/IAH on United (formerly Continental), UA 701, leaving at 7:30 AM.  I showed this to the Delta agent, and she promptly phoned UA and found they had plenty of seats available.  Within a few minutes she had printed my “Involuntary Reroute” documentation to put me on the United flight, and I rushed down the hall to their gate.

But before I left the Sky Club, I asked the gate agent to check that my return reservations that afternoon IAH/RDU were intact and unaffected by the outbound Involuntary Reroute.  She confidently assured me everything was fine, including upgrades on both flights home, IAH/ATL and ATL/RDU.  Breathing a sigh of relief, I ran for my United flight and just made boarding with the last group.

Since I had only my briefcase with me, I had no trouble finding overhead space on the 737, and I was delighted that my assigned seat 24F was in a row with no one in the center seat.  Unlike my recent flights on DL and AA, all of which have been full, I was surprised to look around and see that there were 20 or so empty seats on UA 701.

Before they closed the door, I phoned the Delta Elite line to inquire one more time that my return reservation was still there.  Why was I worried?  Because an Involuntary Reroute is like heart bypass surgery on your itinerary:  Sometimes there are unintended consequences.  In the hands of an inexperienced rez agent, an Involuntary Reroute can result in the cancellation of the rest of your trip.  The Delta Elite agent, however, said everything was OK, so I stopped fretting.  Jangled but relieved of my anxiety that Delta’s screw-up hadn’t ruined the important business meeting I had set up almost three months earlier, I dozed off.

The United flight went smoothly and landed me at IAH almost an hour earlier than my Delta flights would have.  As I made my way to the remote rental car facility, I called the Delta Elite line one more time.  Ok, call me paranoid, and you’d be right, but I wanted to be absolutely certain that my return flights on Delta were still intact.  The agent said everything looked fine.

I successfully made my business engagement at 1:00 PM and headed back to Houston Bush Airport, arriving three hours early for a 6:00 PM departure to Atlanta, with an onward connection to Raleigh.  My fare was high enough that, in conjunction with my Platinum status, I had been upgraded several days in advance.  I had printed one return boarding pass the night before and so went to the Delta check-in counter in Terminal A to obtain the connection flight boarding pass.

That’s when everything went sideways again.  The Delta agent looked at his screen, hesitated, looked at my first boarding pass (seat 1B, IAH/ATL), and then back at his screen.  I knew something was wrong when he called his Red Coat supervisor over.  They then asked me in an accusing voice, “When were you in Los Angeles?”

“Huh!??!” I answered.  I explained that I had come that morning from RDU, nowhere near L.A.  They said the record showed that a Delta reservation in Los Angeles had cancelled my returned flights.  I explained the involuntary reroute of the morning SNAFU and a brief summary of the entire mess that Delta created for me.  After some wrangling the Red Coat said he had managed to reinstate my flights, and he handed me two boarding passes. 

I was about to thank him when I noticed both seats were in coach.  Angrily I returned the boarding passes to him and asked that my seats, 1B on both flights, be reinstated.  No, he said, not first class.  I then showed him my itinerary which I had printed the previous night when I checked in, along with the boarding pass for seat 1B on the IAH/ATL flight.  On my itinerary were my two upgrade seat assignments: 1B, IAH/ATL and 1B, ATL/RDU.  The Red Coat studied my printed itinerary and audibly groaned.  More heated discussion ensued, at the end of which I was assigned 1D and 1B on the respective flights. 

The Red Coat’s face had by then turned as red as his jacket, and he said in a testy tone, “You know I had to take these out of full fare First Class inventory, don’t you?” 

To which I answered, “No offense, but I don’t care where you got the seats.  Delta owed them to me because it was entirely Delta’s screw-up, not mine. Delta upgraded me days in advance because of the fare I paid and because of my Elite status.  Thank you for fixing it, but you put me through a lot of grief considering I’m entirely blameless and took every prudent precaution to protect my backside against just such an airline error.”  After which I reached into my briefcase and handed over a bunch of the Delta “A Job Well Done” vouchers and headed off for security.  He was smiling last time I looked, grateful to have received the vouchers.

Once at the gate I started piecing together the weird series of events.  As I looked through my itineraries and boarding passes, I realized that on the IAH/ATL flight (DL 54) I had been assigned 11D (my original coach seat), then upgraded several days before my flight to 1B, then downgraded to 15F by some nameless, faceless Delta agent somewhere in Los Angeles, then finally upgraded again by the Houston Red Coat to 1D.  Good grief, I wondered.  What else could go wrong?

Pretty soon I found out.  When I asked the Delta agent at Gate A15 if there were any aisle seats in First Class, she checked her records and asked me accusingly where I’d gotten my boarding pass for seat 1D.  She was in an obvious bad mood and didn’t seem to care that her insinuation was insulting and rude.  How could any customer obtain a boarding pass fraudulently?  When I told her the Red Coat gave it to me, she shrieked: “Well, he shouldn’t have given you this seat because you are double-booked!”  As if I had anything to do with it.

She was so mad that I thought I was going to have to return to the Red Coat for justice, but she finally handed back my 1D boarding pass and spit out:  “I FIXED IT!”

Good for you, I thought.  You are a real credit to Delta Air Lines.  I have no idea what you “fixed” and don’t care. 

Getting home to Raleigh yet proved to be a hardship, which I’ll explain next week, but I at least managed to retain my two first class upgrades.  Small comfort. 

My takeaway from this one day nightmare is that, well, I wasn’t surprised at any of it.  I could rail against Delta Air Lines, and while it’s true that they own this cock-up lock, stock, and barrel, the fact is it could just as easily have been any other airline.  What a sad state of affairs.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last year on my way to South Africa, for which I had upgraded to economy plus on a flight that was supposed to leave Atlanta at 7:30, I had a similar nightmare. Everything was on time we were told. 5 minutes before departure we were told that the crew hadn't arrived due to weather in Florida or somewhere. We were told we'd be about 2 hours late. 2 hours later (around 9:30) we were told that there had been some engine trouble so we would not be leaving until 10:30 pm. 10:30 arrives and again we are delayed. Finally the plane is ready but the stewardesses had finished their shift so the plane couldn't leave. At 12:30 am we were told there would be no flight until the next day. Again we were thrown vouchers and told to go to another concourse to rebook. Of course the shuttle trains had stopped running so we had to schlep our suitcases (fortunately, I only had a carryon) all the way to the other end of the airport. I ran like hell (not an easy feat) and arrived to be second in line. Another rigamoral. Finally I was booked out for the tuesday flight which would arrive in south africa on Wednesday. I then had to take another flight to George (south africa) and arrived almost 3 days late to join the research group I was supposed to be with on Monday. I won't even go through how we were rerouted to Amsterdam, how i lost my economy plus seats on both flights, etc.etc. I am giving Delta one more chance since they have the only direct flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg. If I don't make it this time, I give up. PS. KLM reimbursed me for the upgrade and despite my efforts, Delta never did.

3/15/2013 12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't flown Delta since 1996. There's a reason for that.

3/15/2013 12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Delta stranded me on 7 out of 10 connections about 10 years ago. Have not flown them since.

3/15/2013 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Delta has been very good to me. Any problem I've experienced has been handled quickly and professionally. I can't say as much for recent trips on United and I won't even go into the mess at AA.

Sounds like a long and agrivating day. I hope you find some restitution.

3/15/2013 3:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In 40 years of first class air travel DL is is thonly carrietr to pull an unknown seat switch.

3/15/2013 8:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say that I'm no fan of Delta, but, as Will Allen says at the end of his sad tale, if you give any airline enough chances to screw up they will. Delta did the exact same thing to me on a rebook in Salt Lake years ago, American did worse on a NY-NRT paid first class ticket, Varig from NY to Sao Paolo, etc. etc. Airlines are an industry in which customers' travel plans are in constant flux and their generally antiquated systems are very inflexible. Not a good combination. As to outright lies by gate agents, that two, while inexcusable, is common place.

3/19/2013 6:23 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Incredibly in the second decade of the 21st century, their "antiquated systems," as you aptly put it, are not optimized to help customers recover from the airlines' own inevitable and frequent mishaps. Theirs is a general system deficiency that impacts ALL customers equally, whether on a full fare First Class international ticket or the lowest L fare in coach on a domestic flight. It's an industry choice, of course. They could develop better customer service systems, but they don't value us enough to do so.

3/19/2013 7:38 PM  

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