BUFFALO, N.Y. — “If I can get people on a plane and moving, that’s what I’m going to do,” Andrew Martin said shortly after doing the completely unexpected: Booking me a first-class ticket to New Orleans when no one else at Delta Airlines would do any more than place me on standby for a possible coach seat sometime in the next two days. This even though it was a system error that caused me to miss my initial departure. Under such conditions, airlines or ticketing agencies must get their customers to their final destination on confirmed flights, not standby. But no one at Delta’s reservations center would acknowledge an error on their part, trying to blame it on Hotwire, the third-party agent with whom I had booked my flight. Hotwire, in turn, was adamant Delta was at fault for the failure to notify me that a 1:30 p.m. flight had been rescheduled to 1:12 p.m. It was an episode that showed how consumers can get stuck in a pass-the-buck game that causes expense and frustration.
Martin, though, showed class and reason, and saved Delta’s reputation in my eyes. He is a Delta supervisor at Buffalo Niagara International Airport and his efforts, along with the diligence of customer service rep Mari Ainsley, got me into New Orleans on the same day and without any extra fees tacked on.
However, there are other issues that Delta, or consumer advocates, need to address. After driving through the gut-churning blizzard that smacked southern Ontario and upstate New York on Friday the 13th, I arrived at the Delta counter at 12:50 p.m. for the 1:30 p.m. flight I had booked in October. Two ticket agents at the Delta counter said the gate for Flight 723 was closed. There was never a 1:30 p.m. flight, I was told; it was always scheduled for 1:12 p.m., which was a false statement. I was put on standby for a 3:53 p.m. flight to Atlanta and a connecting flight to New Orleans.
I might have been content with waiting it out and seeing what happened, chastising myself for not leaving a half-hour earlier for the airport. But when I arrived at the Delta gates at 1:35 p.m., the 1:12 p.m. flight hadn’t even boarded as yet. The gate hadn’t closed, as the Delta reps at the ticket counter insisted. This flight that I was supposed to be on was still on the tarmac. But Delta had sold my ticket and I wasn’t allowed to board.
The airline industry has a bad reputation with consumers and practices such as this one is why. On a day when just about every Delta flight out of Buffalo was postponed or delayed, Delta never gave customers the kind of leeway and understanding it asks from us. A whole lot of other passengers were in a similar situation, I discovered. In my case, I had to find out why I wasn’t notified of the change in departure time. That meant spending the next two hours calling Hotwire, pleading with Delta’s customer service reps and contemplating other arrangements.
“The problem is when someone books with a third-party agent, they now become that agent’s customer,” Martin said, explaining part of the reason why passengers get stuck in a go-between process such as the one I was in with Hotwire and Delta. Neither of those companies would own up to a communication error, instead pointing a finger at the other.
Fortunately for me, Ainsley secured seats on a 6:50 p.m. flight to Atlanta, and when the first-class seats came up for a connecting flight to New Orleans, Martin booked them. (Neither of them was told I was a journalist until I asked them afterwards if I could use their names for this account.)
Had this situation occurred in another city, I doubt if things would have ended with such a reasonable outcome. Buffalo’s a friendly place, though, and maybe that played a role in Martin’s decency. The bigger issue is with Delta. Other airlines, such as WestJet, put an emphasis on customer experience. The first ticket agent I spoke with at the Delta counter should have had the power to resolve this case — and been encouraged to do so. Bottom line is the major U.S. airlines have a woeful reputation with consumers because their first instinct isn’t to treat us with the compassion we deserve.
The sad thing is all they have to do is empower more of their employees, the way WestJet does, and their customers would feel more cared for. Instead, flyers are left feeling like we have to be on guard when dealing with them. And, after one-too-many infuriating situations, some of us will reach the point where we choose to avoid them altogether.