The Gift

September 12, 2010

in Delay/Cancellation Stories

Airplane travel, at one time adventurous, has now, more often than not, become an adventure. Fifty years ago, well dressed passengers in propeller driven planes flew close enough to the ground to enjoy a panoramic view “of purple mountains’ majesty above the fruited plains.” The earth below was close enough that, through the airplane’s window, one had a bird’s eye view of the routine activities of mortals below, working or playing and unaware that their activities were being scrutinized from above. Flying into a large city at night, low over interlocking neighborhoods, passengers were treated to a high definition visual of millions of twinkling lights stretching to the horizons as the airplane approached a metropolitan airport. Smartly dressed young women served food and drinks with efficiency and a practiced smile that added to the pleasure of the experience.

Alas, progress has once again spoiled a good thing. Today, hundreds of casually dressed travelers are crammed into a space computerally engineered to determine maximum capacity at minimal levels of comfort. They are flung about the world at heights at which gods were once thought to dwell, without the benefits afforded to the gods of viewing their fellow mortals on Earth. They are served somewhat reluctantly, depending upon the length of the flight, by a surly group of middle-aged women whose attitude conveys that they would rather be elsewhere.

As one who has been a part of the transition from prop planes to jets and from business travel to pleasure travel, I now, if at all possible, avoid flying. The airport experience is too dehumanizing. The requirements of early arrivals at airports, additional fees for baggage, interminable security lines, partial disrobing, body searches and bag searches, all before gaining admittance to the inner sanctum of the airport, is just a prelude to the misadventure(s) that may lie ahead. Having obtained a ticket for a flight does not necessarily guarantee that a flight will take place or, if it does, that it will leave at the scheduled time. Advanced technology has not alleviated air travel problems; it has exacerbated them.

Having recently experienced all of the above listed inconveniences, imagine my surprise when I received through the mail a $150 electronic Transportation Credit “so that you may experience Delta’s service at its best.” It was not the $150.00 credit that astonished me, it was the reason for the credit as I’ll now describe.

In the month of May, 2009, I scheduled a flight to Edinburgh, Scotland for September, 2009. The flight was scheduled to leave Atlanta, Georgia at 3:30pm, arrive at JFK airport in New York at approximately 5:30pm, where I would then board a 7:00pm flight to Edinburgh, arriving at my destination at approximately 8:30am, where I would be met at the airport by friends. My friends and I had scheduled (and paid for) a round of golf at Kingsbarns Golf Club near St. Andrews for 3:30pm the afternoon of my arrival.

After arriving at the Atlanta airport the required two hours before the scheduled flight time and checking my baggage at two different locations (oversized bags cannot be checked in with regular baggage), I then submitted myself to the initiation process required to be admitted to the holy-of-holies. During the intervening time between my arrival and my scheduled departure, I checked the departing flight times regularly. At 2:00pm, my scheduled flight was posted as being delayed until 5:30pm. I went to the Delta Customer Service desk and explained that, due to my scheduled flight being delayed, I would not be able to make an international connection in New York. “How fast can you run?” the woman behind the desk asked me. “I have an Air France flight departing in 15 minutes for Paris. You can connect with a flight for Edinburgh and arrive at approximately the same time that you are presently scheduled to arrive.”

I grabbed the ticket, ran down the escalator and arrived in the subway just in time to see the doors on the underground transportation rail system close. Next train in three minutes read the sign. I was in concourse E and had to go the Concourse A. After catching the next train which, of course, stopped at Concourses D, C, B, before reaching A, I ran up the escalator only to find that the gate I wanted was the last gate in the Concourse. I took off at a hard run through the crowded terminal feeling like a fish must feel swimming against the current. After 100 yards, and in need of a defibrillator, a woman driving the electric cart used to transport the disabled picked me up to accelerate my trip to the gate. I leaped off of the cart just in time to see the attendant closing the boarding door.

“Wait,” I shouted. “That’s my flight.”

“I’m sorry. The gate is closed.”

“But, I was just sent over here to catch this flight.”

“Do you have a seat?”

“No. I was just assigned to this flight by Delta Customer Service.”

“I’m sorry. There are no seats on this flight.”

“But I was just sent over here.”

“I said, there are no seats,” was the curt reply as the agent left the area.

I now made the long trip back to Concourse E and Delta Customer Service. The woman with whom I had previously spoken was no longer there. I explained my predicament and what had just happened to another service representative. She made a quick check on her computer terminal and informed me that I would have to wait until the next day to leave.

“I’m sorry,” I responded. “That just will not do. I have things scheduled in Scotland. What about a flight to Amsterdam, then to Edinburgh?” This request was met with obvious exasperation (so much for customer service!).

The woman did, however, call a supervisor and was successful (much to her chagrin it seemed) in getting me on a flight to Amsterdam, leaving Atlanta at 6:30pm where I could connect with a KLM flight to Edinburgh, arriving only twenty minutes later than my original flight. I called my daughter and asked her to email my friends in Scotland that I would arrive on a different flight than the one they were to meet.

The departure time for Amsterdam was delayed an hour. When we finally boarded, I became aware of another inconvenience. On my original flight, I had reserved a window seat so that I could lean against the bulkhead for a light sleep during the night flight. I had now been assigned the middle seat in the five seat section in the middle of the plane. Oh well, at least I had a seat.

The plane pulled away from the gate, then stopped about 500 yards from the terminal. The captain announced that the plane was experiencing some audio problems but would not be long delayed. One hour later, the captain announced that we were returning to the gate so that a technician could board to repair the audio problem. At approximately 9:15pm, nearly three hours after our scheduled departure, the captain announced that, although the airplane had no mechanical problems, the breakdown in the audio system would mean that passengers could not watch a movie or play games during the flight. The passengers, me included, were incredulous. We were three hours late in leaving because we could not watch a movie? This delay meant for me, and others, that we would miss connecting flights in Amsterdam.

We arrived in Amsterdam at 11:00am the next morning. I went to the customer service desk to learn when I could continue to Edinburgh. I could get a flight at 3:30pm, four hours later. Because of the time change, I would also arrive in Edinburgh at 3:30pm. The KLM representative gave me a $10 voucher for food. I called my friends in Edinburgh to give them my new flight information. I would arrive eight hours later than originally scheduled, creating a considerable inconvenience to my friends, and forfeiting a tee time AND green fees at Kingsbarns. Thanks to KLM, I did, indeed, arrive in Edinburgh at 3:30pm.

I now return to my letter from Delta Airlines regarding this trip and the $150 electronic Transportation Credit.

“On behalf of Delta Air Lines, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for the problems surrounding the In-Flight Entertainment system on board Flight 838 from Atlanta to Amsterdam. We share your disappointment that the entertainment system was inoperable. We know that this contributes greatly to the overall travel experience and adds to your enjoyment and comfort during our flights.” etc., etc. “Nonetheless, we would like to extend our $150 electronic Transportation Credit….”

I have since written to the General Manager, Customer Care, who signed this letter, suggesting to her that Delta’s priorities are misplaced. I did not receive a reply.

– Jim

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Dina September 12, 2010 at 12:27 pm

This might be a bit esoteric, but this story reminds me of that bit in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio play in which a spaceliner is delayed for a few million years because they're out of lemon-soaked paper napkins…

That being said, I tire of all the "golden days of flight" nostalgia. The reason things were so much fancier and shinier back then was because a) flying took a hell of a lot longer (especially intercontinental flights!) and b) flying was a hell of a lot more expensive. So as unpleasant as being shoved into a tin can for hours on end can be, at least a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles only takes 14 hours now (and is non-stop instead of having to refuel a few times) and costs only AU$1000 to $1500. This means that my American family and I get to see each other every year or two, which certainly wouldn't happen in the good ol' days!

'Course, we're probably wrecking the planet as we do so, but…


Ryan September 12, 2010 at 3:35 pm

The poster is being nostalgic because he wants an airline to, within some degree of certainty, fulfill its obligation to transport him from point “A” to point “B” in exchange for a fee? The airlines depend on your rationale to get away with the half-baked service they currently offer.


Dina September 13, 2010 at 12:33 pm

If you want, you are completely welcome to purchase business or first class service, which I would guess is comparable in price (adjusted for inflation) to what people used to pay in the good ol' days.


Bort September 13, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Buying Biz Class or 1st Class would not have gotten him there any faster. The reality is CS for the other classes is no better than those on Economy, Economy Plus, or Super Steerage. The current Conditions of Carriage are written so essentially the company can deliver you to any destination, not necessarily the one you paid for.


Dina September 15, 2010 at 12:36 pm

I've flown business class a grand total of once, but the service I received was much better than economy… and that was as an employee companion, and employees and their buddies tend to get much worse service! This was on United, though, so maybe it was just the contrast between that and how crap I know their economy cabin service is…


D-Money September 14, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Um, yeah, like I'm going to waste the battery-life to read all of THAT. 😛


Aaron September 15, 2010 at 12:58 pm

I was once delayed on a northwest commuter flight (a SAAB propeller plane) because the "hot water carafe" (i.e., coffee pot) was missing. Everyone loudly insisted we didn't need coffee and would be happy to leave on time. We were informed that is was a piece of the plane's standard equipment and regulations required they not leave if without all standard equipment. We waited 45 minutes for them to find one and bring it to the plane.

Regarding the poster, it was indeed a flight from hell. But I'd never have booked a tee time for my arrival day on an international trip. You would seem to have the flying experience to know better than that.


G Reuben September 17, 2010 at 4:54 pm

I made it through the first couple of paragraphs. I think I'll wait until the movie comes out.


Nycgirl December 2, 2010 at 3:35 am

This was totally an entitled white man's problem.


PAUL December 2, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Is this the same Jim that hates children on airplanes…sounds like it. It is all making sense now!


Jim December 9, 2010 at 6:58 am

Where you find customer srevice to be a bit lacking, try writing or emailing the CEO. Working in customer service myself for a large multi-national corporation, writing a letter or sending an email to the CEO of the corporation drives an "all hands on deck" response. No guarentee that you will get the response you are hoping for, but you will get the attention you deserve.


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