What do you do when you experience horrible customer service, and can’t get redress?
Blogging is one response.
This is a story about bad air travel in the United States. Maybe it’ll draw some attention from the service provider, or at least document just how bad flying in America can get in 2018. I’ll add some reflections at the end.
On Friday I spent fourteen hours at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, or DTW, according to the airport code schema, and didn’t even make it home that night. I arrived at the airport at 8 am with two freshly printed boarding passes in hand. One American Airlines was to take me from DTW to a Washington, D.C. airport; the other from DC to Burlington, the airport closest to my home.
Two major winter storms had hit the east coast hard that day and the previous night, so American canceled those flights, and offered to rebook me for… Sunday, two days away. This seemed awful (would I have to get hotels for two days, or find a friend’s sofa to crash upon?), so I pressed for alternative airports. Manchester, New Hampshire (3 hours from my home): nope. The best they could do was Albany, New York, about four hours’ drive from my home. The American rep had to turn to Delta Airlines for that. He printed their tickets to a late night flight, and also made up a ticket for an afternoon standby flight.
This wasn’t incompetent on the face of it. Quite the opposite. The American agent did his best, and the situation was very stressed, between many cancelations and delays.
I took a (delayed) shuttle over to what is basically Detroit’s Delta terminal, and planned to spend hours trying to work on my laptop over weak WiFi, enjoying the dubious culinary offerings of P.F. Chang’s while waiting for my escape. After lunch I tried to get on that Albany standby. Not only did I not get a seat, but they canceled the flight anyway.
Depressed at the prospect of spending 14 hours in an airport, I tracked down another Delta agent. This one discovered a direct flight to Burlington, leaving in a couple of hours! It was already booked, but the helpful agent got me on a standby list. Maybe…
Now, the kind agent did not print a ticket; instead, she printed an itinerary and told me to have the flight’s gate agent generate a real boarding pass. That sounded reasonable to me. I was hopeful.
When I arrived at the gate (C1) I handed over the itinerary to a smiling gate agent, explained the situation, and asked for a boarding pass. The smile gradually dropped from the agent’s face as she couldn’t actually print a ticket. She said the data was entered improperly in the system. She summoned another agent to help, and then a supervisor. For the next hour I stood by in the crowded departure “lounge” as multiple PA systems barked flight information, desperately hoping to get a seat on a flight home, while the three agents struggled with the system. They also boarded the flight, summoning passengers by various categories.
At no point did the Delta staff suggest there was a problem with my i.d. or reservation. There weren’t any issues with their terminals, the network, or the database. The storm did not seem to have played a role in creating the problem.
Eventually all ticketed passengers who were actually in the area boarded the plane, and then all – all – standby passengers followed them onto the flight.
Except me. The gate team still couldn’t get the ticket to work.
When, a few minutes later, it was time to close the plane’s door and send it off a single open seat remained on the flight. Yet the agents still couldn’t get me a boarding pass. Instead, they closed the door firmly as I watched, helpless. One by one the staff members apologized to me. They couldn’t explain what happened, and then they sent me away.
Shocked and now quite depressed, I crossed the giant room of departure gates to a Delta service center. There I picked up an old school wall-mounted phone and called their help line.
The phone representative, Chris, could offer no explanation for what had just happened. He seemed shocked and dismayed by the story. Hilariously, he also let slip that they had just deleted my Albany flight, and were hastily “reactivating” it.
I asked how confident he was that I still had that late Albany flight, after its resurrection. Would I actually be able to take the flight? Would my printed pass let me board, after all?
“I am pretty sure you will be on this next flight,” he replied. He paused, then added, a bit shakily, “100% sure.”
At this point I sank into a Kafka mood. I had to ask Chris if I had done something wrong. Had I somehow entered some data into their system and broken something? Had I offended Delta and was being targeted for special treatment?
No, said Chris. It… just happened that way. No explanation. He apologized a few times.
Starting to imbibe a deep feeling of fatalism. I stood in line for a while at the service counter to find another agent who could make absolutely sure the ticket was valid.
I live tweeted the experience.
Just lost an hour of my life and a flight home, because @Delta fouled up my eticket.
— Bryan Alexander (@BryanAlexander) March 3, 2018
Delta’s Twitter account never replied. In fact, as of this writing they have yet to respond in the slightest. I followed up with a detailed customer complaint through their web form. That, too, hasn’t elicited any reaction.
Tired, furious, feeling deeply disconnected from the world, I then staggered over to the next gate to get ready to board. The gate agent there had no time to see me, which was disturbing. But I eventually managed to enter the jet nearly fourteen hours after arriving at DTW. We sat on the tarmac for a while, then took off. I flew… well, part of the way home. That night – actually the next morning, about 1 am – I staggered into an Albany area hotel room and passed out in bed. After sunrise my kind wife arrived, and drove me back home to Vermont, an eight hour round trip for her.
Why did this happen? Does it mean anything?
On the technology side, I wonder about the handoff between American and Delta. In the abstract, this looks like a basic problem of records moving between different data structures. Yet it’s 2018, and airlines have been trading passengers for generations. Could this still be a problem? Or is Delta’s internal data structure so unwieldy that multiple agents can easily mess up a transaction?
Maybe this story is, instead, an anecdote about how big organizations relying heavily on networked data can easily mess up and fail in their mission. That isn’t news.
Perhaps it’s a sign of American air travel’s steady decline. Different staff members can’t make the system work in a basic way. They are unable to respond capably to a winter storm which, while stressful, occurs regularly, and the weather of the past several days was by no means unusual. The system is too tight and inflexible.
Maybe American passenger air has reached the limits of its capacity, and breaks down when hit by strong events. It might be too fragile, lacking necessary give for responding to shocks. If so, what’s next?