Saturday, May 16, 2009

Tough Day - Thank You Delta Airlines

May 15, 2009

Ticket Number: 0062157744559

I’m writing this in the back of a taxi, on my way to Boston's Logan Airport to catch a flight home to Seattle. I was originally scheduled on Flight #6211 from Providence (PVD) to Cincinnati (CVG), then on to Seattle. After getting on the plane, settling in my seat, buckled tight and about to eat my now warm TGIF chicken cesare, I’m surprised to see the gate representative walk down the aisle. She instructs me to get off the plane. Why? They had put too much fuel on the plane, and thus were overweight. As a result, they had to eliminate passengers from the flight. I wasn’t the only passenger removed. At least four others were impacted similarly. Our bags were removed from the plane and confusion and chaos ensued.

Never in my many years of travel, which includes gold status on other airlines, have I ever experienced such poor expectations setting, and even worse attempts to find a solution. The attendant was nice and apologetic but was completely overwhelmed. She stated “this happens every once in a while” and that when it happens, “and it puts her in a horrible position”. Sadly we were in a worse position than her. And the sadder reality is, Delta as a business, actually tolerates bumping passengers and leaving empty seats because the flights and fuel are mismanaged. I understand that the plane was a local partner carrier, but it still had Delta painted on its side. This debaucle is absolutely predictable. This was not a mechanical breakdown, nor bad weather, or even bad luck. This is a known problem that allowed to persist.

After many apologies, a $400 voucher and $14 in meal vouchers, I was booked on a flight through Atlanta that was leaving 3+ hours later at 5:55pm. About two hours before that scheduled flight, a major delay was announced, this time due to mechanical failure. The forecasted two hour delay would mean I’d miss my connecting flight in Atlanta. I went back to the attendant, who seems to have been dealing with upset clients this entire time, to find out what my options were at that point. Apparently, there were none. Not even on other airlines. At least not on Delta’s partner airlines. Options through other hubs were frantically explored, yet nothing. A line of more angry passengers was forming behind me, so I took a break and called to consult my wife (who is sick and negotiating a newborn plus our two year old). I also called my company's corporate travel agency. We quickly identified a JetBlue flight leaving Boston (BOS) at 8:55pm. Now my only challenge was getting from PVD to BOS. The attendant expressed several times she’s be happy to get me a taxi voucher for the ride. But as I discussed my other options with the travel agent, the attendant having gotten through the angry queue, punched the code into Gate 16 keypad, and disappeared.

So now I had a plan, but no conduit. I knocked on the door. No response. There was no plane attached to gate 16, so she’s either taking a break in there, or took the stairs on the other side. In anycase, there was no response. I had the airport courtesy operator page Delta to send someone to the gate. But nobody showed up. I knocked on the door a few more times. But after about 10 minutes, things got urgent, the clock was ticking. I had two hours to find some way to get to Logan Airport, and knew it was at least an hour away and potentially another half hour if traffic was bad.

I made my way to the main check-in ticket desk. I told the 30 second version to one of the trainees, and then after being asked to wait in line, had to repeat myself to someone who could actually help me. The amazing thing is that when I told my story again, the qualified attendant didn’t seem surprised. Her eyebrows raised when she realized this fiasco extended beyond the immediate Atlanta delay. When I asked for the cab voucher that was promised to me at Gate 16. She informed me that it may be against Delta policy to give cab vouchers for passengers flying on other airlines. I told her, “I would like to speak to the most senior person here at Delta”. Of course the manager wasn’t around, and had to be tracked down via walkie talkie. They exchanged a couple of polite hellos and “where you at” and I got to hear the story about how the supervisor had to take care of some stuff with the TSS. Only when I explained that I need an answer immediately and that I would not take NO for an answer did she finally ask the actual question. The manager on the walkie talkie calmly told her, “Since this is due to the mechanical issues, we share some responsibility, give him a voucher.”

Needless to say, the 5:30pm traffic was horrific, and the cab voucher did not cover the tolls and tip (or I just probably got taken by the cabbie). Delta refunded me the cost of the flight. But I had to pay for the last minute JetBlue flight myself. No other compensation, retribution, re-imbursements nor any apologies made. The closest thing to “sorry” or “good luck” from the second attendant was "you'll have to contact corporate if you'd like any further accomodations". I got the sense she was just relieved that I was in a hurry to leave.

At Logan, the kiosks were bountiful, and shouts of “I can help the next person” reverberated off the walls. I paid the extra $30 bucks for a middle exit aisle seat. It was like the sun appeared after fifty years of rain. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had such horrible customer service. I never shouted, never profane, the first 80% of my interactions with the Delta folks were controlled, polite, and even light-hearted with jokes and smiles, acknowledging that the folks I was dealing with weren't the root of the problems. But when things went from terrible, to dismal, to desperate, the overwhelming response I got from Delta was abandonment followed by arrogance. What's scarier, is that I fear I’m not an isolated incident. There were at least a half dozen other poor souls just like me that day, and how many the day before? If this is how business is done at Delta, it is a very sorry statement. In this tough economic time, companies that tolerate this kind of behavior and performance go out of business. I’m a Director at one of the World’s largest technology companies and a seasoned business traveller. Add my experience to the classic lore of "worst airline stories ever...".

***At all cost, I'd advise anyone to avoid Delta, especially anything that's not their biggest hubs or most popular flights. If things go wrong, the issues are set up to cascade, and you will very likely suffer a similar fate.***