Friday, September 04, 2009

One More Airline Horror Story - This Time About Delta Airlines

About six months ago, Mary and I decided to take a vacation over the Labor Day week. We had an invitation from Mary's brother, Eddie, to join him, his wife Susan, and some friends at a house on the Jersey shore. We've never been to the Jersey shore, and we haven't had any real contact with Eddie and Susan over the years. It seemed like a great opportunity. We said "Yes!".

We thought we'd be smart and plan ahead, so we got online and booked two tickets with Northwest Airlines. At the time we did it (March, 2009), we were shopping for convenient flight times and low cost - no different from any of the millions of people who buy airline tickets every year. We found what we thought was a good deal, and were even able to cash in part of a flight we had to cancel last year. We carefully looked at each leg of the flight and selected seats side-by-side. We coordinated with Eddie to arrive in Philadelphia at about the same time, so we could share a rental car. It was all coming together nicely.

We made a mistake, though. I imagine it was a mistake that most of the other millions of ticket buyers make.

We didn't read the fine print.

I don't even recall seeing the fine print - the "rules" associated with the tickets. It was probably displayed - we were booking through Northwest Airlines web site, - and they probably gave us the option to review it all. And I probably didn't review it. Tell the truth, now. How many times have you read all the fine print on a web site when you're conducting a routine transaction? You don't , do you? You hit "Accept" and move on.

You probably think that when you select a seat on an airplane, it's yours. It's not. You probably think that if you and your wife select seats side-by-side, that you'll actually get to sit together. You're wrong. You probably think that if you pay what the airline asks for the seat, that there will be some integrity in your reservation, even if the airline merges with another. Ha Ha HA! Foolish mortal!

I bought the seats from Nortwest Airlines six months ago. Paid for them. Selected the adjacent seats. Since then, I have received multiple emails from Northwest advising me of changes in the reservation. Most were innocuous, even inscrutable. There was an initial change in arrival time - getting in an hour later than we originally planned. (Sorry, Eddie, you'll have to wait an extra hour for us.) The others didn't appear to change much. Last night (Thursday evening before Labor Day), we looked at the reservations online (at We were still together on the same flights, still in the same seats. Our departure on Saturday was confirmed, according to Northwest.

Tonight (Friday), we checked in on line. The first sign that something had gone wrong was when we had to switch from to to check in. I know the airlines combine flights - selling tickets on a delta flight, a northwest flight, and maybe somebody else's flight - each with different flight numbers, but all really being the same plane. We bought a ticket on Northwest. Delta would deliver. OK. They bought Northwest...or Northwest bought them. I don't care too much...just get me to my destination, safely.

After a couple of false starts, I got us checked in. Then I printed the boarding passes. I though we were all set.

But, wait a minute...the seats are different. The seats we were assigned in the Northwest confirmation were not the same on our Delta boarding passes. We were sitting in different rows! WTF?!

So I called Northwest. I spoke to a customer support rep who told me, politely, that he couldn't see our seats on the Delta flight and that we'd have to contact Delta. Thanks a lot. I paid you for the tickets. Why should I expect customer support to be helpful?

So I called Delta. I spoke to Donald. He couldn't help me, either. The flight is full. You'll have to talk to the gate agent. There was nothing else he could do.

What?! So it's MY problem now? No way. I asked for a customer service number where I could lodge a complaint. He gave me one: 1-888-286-3163.

Guess what? That's a fax machine! I'll grant him this: Donald did a nice job of getting rid of me.

I searched for Delta customer support number on line. I found a number for Delta in Atlanta. The answering machine said that their office hours were 8-5 and I should call back. I found another listing for customer service - 1-800-221-1212. I called it and kept hitting "0" until I got a live human. I don't know where she was physically located, but her accent suggested somewhere in India. She was polite, and looked up my reservation, and politely told me that there was nothing she could do. She recommended that I talk to the gate agent.

Thanks, I said, but that's not an answer. Get me your supervisor. She put me on hold for an extended period...probably about 10 minutes. When she came back on, she told me that her supervisor could not help me, but that she'd talk to me anyway. Great. Put her on.

Debra, the supervisor, was from somewhere in North America. She, too, was polite, but reiterated that she couldn't fix the problem.

Why, I asked, would I get confirmation of adjacent seats from Northwest, but be seated in different rows by Delta? Debra calmly replied that when I agreed to purchase my tickets, I agreed to the airlines' conditions that I only had a seat, not a specific seat. There were no guarantees that I would have a specific seat. Its all spelled out in the agreement for your ticket - that pesky fine print!

Then why, I asked, did the airlines perpetuate the charade of allowing us to select seats on line? Why waste our time and the airlines' computer bandwidth? Good question, she replied. But she didn't have an answer. She repeated that should talk to the gate agent.

I'll admit that by now I was pissed. No thanks, I said. Here's what I want: I want you, Debra, as a customer care manager with Delta Airlines, to notify your people in Indianapolis and have them sort it out, so that when I arrive at the airport tomorrow afternoon, they say, "Hi, Mike. We understand there was a problem with your seats. We've fixed it for you." That, I said, would be real customer service.

To her credit, Debra didn't laugh. Instead, she told me that she could document my request, but there was no guarantee that the people in Indianapolis would read it.

What? You mean that Delta Airlines goes to the trouble and expense of maintaining a 24x7 Customer Support line, but that the rest of the organization will likely ignore what customers say?

Oh, no, said Debra. They'll pay attention if I call to request a wheel chair or some other special assistance. But a complaint about how Northwest / Delta mangled my reservation? Sorry, they probably won't read that.

Whether I ever buy another ticket on Delta or Northwest again will have absolutely no impact on the financial performance of either/both/the combined airline. I know that, and so does Delta / Northwest. But maybe the one or two people who read this blog will tell a couple of their friends, and they'll share the link with others. Maybe our combined voices demanding better service will influence how Delta / Northwest handle their seat assignments.

Maybe sooner or later, somebody at Delta who is empowered to actually solve a customer problem will give me a call and offer a solution.

Maybe I'll pick up the phone.