My Valentine to Delta Airlines

Dean Barnett

7/2/2007 8:58:12 PM - Dean Barnett

Yesterday Mrs. Soxblog and I winged our way back from pristine Orange County to the gritty City of the Bean. Or, more properly, I should say we attempted to wing our way back to Boston. Here’s the grim story, told in chronological order:

9:15 a.m. PDT – Mrs. Soxblog and I bid a sad farewell to Newport Beach’s Triple A 5 Diamond “The Island Hotel” where the service was exceptional, the spa rejuvenating (or so I’m told), the gym well equipped and the amenities approaching perfection. I eagerly await Hugh’s next vacation so I have an excuse to return.

9:30 a.m. PDT – Mrs. Soxblog and I bid an even sadder farewell to the midnight blue Inifiniti I-35 that we rented. Guess what? It drove much better than my Honda Element. Please don’t tell Lileks.

9:45 a.m. PDT – We enter the John Wayne Airport security cue.

10:15 a.m. PDT – We successfully run the gauntlet of the John Wayne security organization. I very much appreciate the job that the TSA people do. It can’t be much fun, and I they’re polite and efficient. But for reasons that I don’t understand, small airports almost invariably have longer security line waits than big airports in spite of comparable staffing. Just making an observation here, scrupulously avoiding any judgments.

10:21 a.m. PDT – We arrive at the gate for Delta Flight 1546, scheduled to depart for Boston at 11:15 a.m. with a stop at the Cincinnati/Covington airport where Mrs. Soxblog once got a first-rate manicure. Unfortunately, we will not be changing planes so there will be no time for any manicures today.

10:45 a.m. PDT – The Delta gate crew gives us the first bad news of the day. The airplane requires a new battery. The flight will be delayed at least an hour. This announcement sets off a scramble of concerned passengers worried about making their connecting flights. We have no such concerns, since we don’t have to catch a connecting flight since our very plane is headed for Boston.

12:15 p.m. PDT – The bad news continues. The delay will be another hour. The panic among the passengers regarding connecting flights rises. I check to confirm my notion that we are golden since we are on a “thru-flight”. The gate agents confirm my notion. Needless to say, if Delta lacked the will or ability get me home yesterday, I would have found another airline that could get the job done or settle for enjoying the Orange County sunshine for another day.

12:45 p.m PDT – The gate attendants make an announcement that they are looking into everyone’s connecting information, but can’t make any definitive statements to any of the concerned travelers regarding this concern.

1:15 p.m. PDT – Our plane, boasting a spanking new battery, zips down the runway headed for Cincinnati/Covington. My wife is in first class. She’s a silver Medallion member and got an upgrade. The only reason I agreed to fly Delta is because she gets upgraded. Me, I have the seat next to me empty so I too am happy, even though the woman in my row sounds like she has the Plague.

1:40 p.m. PDT – I begin watching the Will Farrell vehicle “Blades of Glory.” It’s funny, but after thirty minutes I get the point and opt for a nap. I whip out one of those ingenious horse-shoe shaped flying pillows and drift into a fitful slumber.

3:30 p.m. PDT – I begin reading Andrew Ferguson’s magnificent “Land of Lincoln”. I figure between now and the end of my day of travel, I’ll be able to read the whole thing.

7:10 p.m. EDT – (Note time change) An hour before landing, panic begins spreading regarding the connecting flights. Normally the flight attendants announce what gates the passengers should go to. Instead, our stews are mum, telling the poor saps with connecting flights that they’ll have to check with the gate agent.

8:10 p.m. EDT - Flight 1546 lands in Cincinnati/Covington.

8:17 p.m. EDT - I make way for the New York bound woman with the Plague to get into the aisle to exit the plane and seek a connecting flight. I settle back into my seat with my book.

8:20 p.m. – The stew comes over the public address system and tells the Boston bound passengers that they will have to deplane and speak to the gate agent. Trouble has entered my heart-shaped world.

8:25 p.m. – A bewildered crew of a few dozen travelers stand puzzled at the gate. There is no gate agent. A helpful Delta employee (a phrase you will not see repeated in this post) tells us to go down to Gate B 14 to the Delta customer help center. Good news! We’re only at Gate B-20. A short walk!

8:27 p.m. – The increasingly angry mob goes to the Delta help center. The employee there is closing up shop, and defiantly tells the mob that the help center closes at 8:30 p.m. and that the mob will have to go through security and visit the ticket desk. This is no small issue if we’re going to catch other planes, since the terminal in Cincinnati/Covington is bigger than Rhode Island.

8:28 p.m. – One passenger, seeing the writing on the wall and arrogating to herself the role of de facto mob leader, pronounces that Delta treats its customers like s**t. The crowd mutters its approval. I begin thinking of “Do the Right Thing.” A Delta captain passing the developing melee tries to subdue the crowd and promises to find someone to help us. He’s the last helpful Delta employee we will see that night.

8:32 p.m. Said pilot, after much phoning and pleading, breaks the news to all of us that we will indeed have to go to the ticket counter. I dial Mrs. Soxblog’s special Silver Medallion help line on my cell phone to find out what our options are. I find out that for inexplicable reasons the second leg of flight 1546 took off at 8:19, five minutes after we landed on the original Flight 1546. Why didn’t they hold the flight for us? Or why didn’t they fly us to Boston on a mostly empty plane? I assume it was because neither one of these would have been cost effective options for Delta. Customer service seems not to have been a factor in the airline’s crude calculus. As we make our way to the ticket counter, we are a tad annoyed.

8:50 p.m. - We arrive at the ticket counter. The person attempting to help us seems not to fully understand her job. She keeps insisting that we shouldn’t be there, that Flight 1546 went to Boston as scheduled. This does not quell our rising anger. I ask for her supervisor.

8:52 p.m. – The supervisor arrives. I run down the story for him. He says our plane had engine problems. This shady attempt at deception fails to get our relationship off on the right foot. I tell him that I know our plane needed a new battery in Orange County, that it got one, and it seemed operational during the flight. We never had to assume crash positions. He barks, “I never said anything about a battery.”

He then calms down and tries to patiently explain to me that the airline tries to inconvenience as few people as possible. I said it looked more like the airline tried to make as much money as possible, and was indifferent to its responsibility of getting its passengers to where they’re supposed to be. I told him that if they wanted to fly a less than full load to Boston with the left behind passengers of Flight 1546, no one would have been inconvenienced.

8:55 p.m. – The supervisor goes into mollification mode, telling us that they’ve put us up for the night. But wait, he says, there’s more! The airline has graciously given us meal vouchers. $7 for dinner, $7 for breakfast. We remain unthrilled.

8:57 p.m. – We ask about getting our luggage. They tell us it’s in holding waiting to be loaded on the flight they’ve booked us on for tomorrow morning. While it’s swell that they’re putting us up for the night, it would be even sweller if we could have such amenities as clean clothes and toothbrushes. My wife brings this point to their attention.

8:59 p.m. – Once again, indifference takes the day. They say they can retrieve our luggage if there is a medical reason. As fate would have it, there is and it’s a serious one. I have Cystic Fibrosis and need my vest airway clearance system (which ways 50 pounds and can’t be a carry on) and the medicine I aerosolize and then inhale (which also can’t be brought on board because of the understandable prohibitions on fluid).

Here, things get a little tense. The supervisor says it will take “a while” to retrieve our luggage. Anger rising, I delicately inquire, “Could you please define ‘a while’?” He responds maybe 45 minutes, maybe two hours, or maybe they won’t be able to find my luggage at all. I ask how they’ll manage to find it tomorrow morning if they can’t find it tonight. He robotically repeats his “45 minute - two hour - not at all” formulation. At this point, my money is on “not at all.” We opt to stop ramming our heads against the wall and instead resign ourselves to collecting our boarding passes for tomorrow and our accommodation and meal vouchers for tonight.

A this point, it’s safe to say we’ve sailed past “irked” and are cruising to “enraged”.

9:05 p.m. – The supervisor steps aside to let the clueless woman do her thing. She says, “You want one room?” My wife and I almost simultaneously say since we are both entitled to a room, we want two. I sure did marry the right woman.

9:15 p.m. - As we leave the desk under the watchful eye of the supervisor who seems understandably wary of us going postal at any minute, I extend my hand and tell him he’s a good guy doing a hard job. In truth, I didn’t think he was a particularly good guy, at least in his capacity as a Delta customer service representative. I thought he had grown way too comfortable giving customers the shaft. If he had any remorse over being the Delta employee in charge of treating its paying customers so poorly, he hid it carefully. He shakes my hand and smiles. I then give him a shot at redemption and myself a shot at catharsis. While we’re having this tender moment, I ask him in all sincerity, “Do you have any idea how much your airline sucks?” He begins yelling at me that he’s been with Delta for 24 years, and he thinks they’re great. I yell back that California will tumble into the sea and Rosie O’Donnell will win the Miss Universe contest before I fly Delta again. We say our farewells.

9:45 p.m. – Because of the vast quantities of displaced Delta customers, it takes 30 minutes to finally get on board the shuttle to the Courtyard Marriot.

9:50 p.m. – We check into the Courtyard Marriot. We combine our two rooming vouchers to upgrade to a suite. Count one small victory for the Soxblogs!

AFTERMATH –

I almost always fly JetBlue or Southwest. When forced to turn to one of the members of the old line oligopoly, I avoid Delta because I’ve always considered them the worst of the worst. They always struck me as not just indifferent to the idea of customer satisfaction, but oddly hostile to it.

I thought back to a few experiences I had with JetBlue over the winter when I frequently used that airline to shuttle back and forth between Florida and Boston. One time in January, our morning flight was an hour late because of mechanical difficulties. The gate attendants rolled over a cart of complimentary Dunkin Donuts and coffee to show their concern. A few weeks later, a JetBlue flight was delayed two hours because of mechanical difficulties. I was delighted to receive an email a few days later with a flight voucher worth the total cost of the flight.

And then there was my conversation with David Neeleman, the then-CEO of JetBlue in the wake of their organizational breakdown that stranded thousands of passengers this winter. The pain in his voice was unmistakable. He cared not only about losing customers, but about his airline living up to its commitments. It’s called ethics.

I couldn’t help comparing JetBlue with Delta as my wife and I sat angrily at the Courtyard Marriot, munching on Cheetos while my lungs became congested. Obviously, I’ll never fly Delta again. Ever. Our “Delta Awards” American Express Gold Cards will be cut in half after this month’s bill is paid.

To be completely honest, there is nothing Delta could do to win my forgiveness. I would, however, like Delta to give me my money back for yesterday’s flight just because it would be the right thing to do. I’m not optimistic on that front. When I mentioned the idea to the customer service supervisor, he pretty much laughed in my face.

I figure someone in Delta’s higher ranks must read this blog. If they would like to offer a defense or explanation for their airline’s actions yesterday, I’ll gladly print it. And I’m sure some of our readers might like some reassurance that they won’t be so rudely handled when they consider what airline to give their future business to.

As far as I’m concerned, though, Delta is dead to me. It’s not a brother, not a friend, and I want two days notice when it comes to visit our mother. But that’s no big deal. I’ve loathed Delta for a long time. But my wife is a loyal flyer and a Silver Medallion member. Or should I say “was.” Delta is dead to her, too. When you treat customers like something you stepped in, there will be consequences.

Compliments? Complaints? Contact me at Soxblog@aol.com.