Dear Delta Airlines: why the horrendous service?

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.


What a direct flight’s route looks like.

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.

DTW canceled flights

Plenty of flights were canceled.

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.

The flight looks like it landed as I wrote this post.

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.

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?


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19 Responses to Dear Delta Airlines: why the horrendous service?

  1. Tatiana Goodwin says:

    Gah. I did have a similar situation when I was flying back home about a month ago, needing to cancel a flight due to personal medical issues and book new last minute tickets during a weekend of massive snow and icestorms that were playing havoc with air travel.

    Except that was Southwest and they handled it well. I had to call to book as I was away from my laptop then and the rep apologized for the ambient noise as their call center was *packed* with reps handling the load. I had options and no bobbles with my tickets and got home with only the delay of weather being harsher than St. Louis was used to dealing with.

    So sorry you had this horrific issue but I will say that it’s happened to me (though not as badly) but never with Southwest.

  2. Ellen Moody says:

    I have blogged in response to terrible service when I felt I was deliberately cheated: Expedia where they sluiced $1800 from me. After I blogged, I received off the blog several replies confirming the person had had an analogous experience: hours on the phone, at the end of which a couple of thousand dollars was extracted. I tell anyone who is booking a flight, never use Expedia; I wrote the story wherever possible.

    I suggest the cause of what happened to you was indifference to the customer by the company’s set up policy. Also the company thinks or knows it can get away with such behavior.

  3. Mathieu Plourde says:

    American air travel is now “Greyhound with wings”. This nickel and dime game has made travelling a chore more than ever. I can pay, sometimes up to a third of the price of the ticket, to get on board first, so I can make sure there is enough space for my carry on? Give me a break!

    Also, changing your itinerary costs 200$ with American, while most of the flights I take don’t even cost that much. And their seats are getting closer to one another and narrower, so they can pack more and more livestock (aka passengers) in there.

  4. Nikki Reynolds says:

    Yes, flying in the U.S. has been an ordeal for the last 10 or 15 years, I think. Your story is not all that unusual. The system has no slack, no “backup plan” to accommodate mechanical failure or weather, even though those events, while not on a predictable timeline, are nevertheless predictably certain. How do they get away with this lack of reasonable service? It’s quite simple, really: there are no other options. Air travel is not truly competitive in itself. There is no train service, and bus service is even less pleasant and much more time consuming than airline service. The only true competitor is the automobile, and for some distances, it just isn’t practical.

  5. Matthew Henry says:

    Time for blockchain flight tickets. They would belong to you, not the airlines 🙂 The airlines would just become the actual flight servicer of your flights, not the owner of the tickets.

  6. Michael Flood says:

    I’m actually very surprised at where you lay the blame here. You paid $$ to American Airlines. It seems to me that the problem was almost certainly when American tried to book you on Delta. Yet you lay zero blame on the entity you transacted with, instead calling Delta to task when likely the problem started outside their organization.

    These systems have a LOT of requirements, many of them NOT from the Airlines themselves. If the data isn’t right, they often cannot allow you to board, BY LAW, to prevent unauthorized passengers or incorrect tracking. Also, if American didn’t actually enter the information correctly, it could be that Delta wasn’t going to receive ANY compensation from American – American would have effectively kept your $$ and thrown their problem onto Delta.

    Without knowing precisely where the “data was incorrectly entered” as they described it to you, we cannot know who was to blame here for sure. It does sound like a half-dozen Delta employees tried to help you and the situation was fouled up before it got to them…

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I’m sorry if it was unclear, Michael, but it was Delta that picked out the Burlington standby. American set up the previous standby I mentioned (the one that got canceled) as well as the late night flight that actually worked. So this really was an internal matter.

  7. Is Michael Flood a Delta sock puppet? Would airlines, like politicians, now consider such? Whatever. If it acts like a sock puppet, posts like a sock puppet, treat it like one.

    Years ago, the year of your birth actually, I worked for Eastern Airlines in NYC (reservations computer bay on 43 St). There was substantial reciprocity among airlines on a number of issues — Delta excepted. They had a rep among airline employees. I’d hate to think a toxic corporate and workplace culture would survive that long. Still, I can’t help wondering…

    More likely it’s an information gap — or perfect storm of information gaps — the kind the internet and computer networks were supposed to render obsolete but haven’t. Just because systems should be able to talk to each other doesn’t mean they do — or that silo keepers work toward that goal. This reminds me of problems with medical records and how challenging it can be to get all of them accessible in one place, whether to primary care physician or patient — preferably both.

  8. Dave says:

    Dear Delta,
    Why should we care about you? You’re just the worst airline we have ever seen!
    So your political opinions are meaningless because your service is atrocious!
    Your CEO may want to improve service and delays before making political comments.
    Just a thought

  9. Angella Hastings says:

    I liked flying with Delta…but the other day I travel with my puppy and I had to put him under the seat… OMG it was such a sad experience he never went under the seat win I fly with him and my my patient is dead he’s not a service animal for my patient anymore so I had to take him with me… I will never do that again… I don’t think it’s a problem if your pet sits in your lap…but I guess that’s there policy’s…but it really sucks… I thought my puppy was going to have a heart attack…

  10. Cap'n G says:

    Delta is a great airline with superb service. So you got stuck in an airport for long hours.
    Airline ticket issues abound. They fly hundreds of thousands of passengers a day.
    When weather Jack’s a schedule ….well, just work with it and stop whining.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Cap’n G, did you not read to the part where Delta booked me on a flight, then somehow failed to actually give me a seat? That’s not a weather issue.

  11. Jim says:

    Delta charges $300 to change a flight unless there is a medical reason, they want your doctors name and number.

  12. Jim Matthews says:

    I agree. Delta gives good service when everything is going well. But if something happens, their customer service people can’t and won’t help you. I try to avoid them. I was trying to fly to a city in the South (from Burlington, VT) for a job interview. I gave myself 2 1/2 days. It still wasn’t enough. Storms, GPS issues, no rested crews, a MIA pilot. I eventually abandoned my flight and found a flight on American Airlines. After multiple delays and 2 cancellations, I gave up on them.

  13. Mark says:

    I think you need to realize..once in a while ..things don’t always go your way….smile..rub some dirt in your wounds..and don’t play the blame game. Get over it.

  14. Deborah Baur says:

    I worked for Delta customer service for 25 years ( now retired). I can say with certainty that you should have had a better outcome. From there, it gets murky. My best guess is AA rebooked you but didn’t reissue the ticket. Thus, DL had no document available for you to travel, only a reservation. Honestly, this is one reason DL likes to protect on DL. Also, for quite some time, we did not accept AA tickets because AA didn’t want to do an interline exchange. At this point, I agree with the above comment. Sometimes, stuff happens, and it isn’t always someone’s fault. That is a mindset we Americans have grown too accustomed to, trying to lay blame somewhere. Move on.

  15. Janette says:

    I had a horrible experience with delta from Detroit to Sydney Australia and back. The seats were filthy and the stewardesses were rude and no where to be seen except when bring drinks.

  16. Lee J says:

    Delta has done a horrible job of helping passengers during this emergency. My expensive ticket is now being handled by other airlines that delta is working but giving me different routes, multiple airports with impossible connections. All in a time we should avoid such itineraries. The call centers don’t work, KLM how ended up with my ticket doesn’t answer calls, Debra doesn’t answer calls, the web sites don’t work nor do chats, etc.
    Do not assume Delta will respect in any way your reservation , however, they are very efficient in getting your payment!! Should be laws protecting the passenger. This is not acceptable!!! It’s called theft.


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