Delta customer service: exclusions may apply

Some friends of ours invited us to spend 4 days with them in Paris in late August. They had some rooms free in an apartment they had rented and so all we needed to do was figure out how to fly there.

I don’t normally travel to Europe in the summer and know it can be a busy time of year, so figured I’d have to do a bunch of research before booking these tickets. What I never expected how this would send me into a rabbit hole where the major airline, Delta, would prove to me how poorly it can treat customers and prospective customers who are about to spend thousands of dollars with them.

Doing research

My research started, as many a traveler’s does, on the web. I used hipmunk and expedia and seatguru and all the usual tools to shop around. Because this was a short trip (only 4 days total), we were hoping to perhaps use some of those thousands of American Express membership rewards points we had built up over the years to at least get a Business Class upgrade for the overnight (red eye) flight from Washington, DC to Paris.

We figured this was an appropriate splurge. It’s one of the rare times my girlfriend gets vacation time away from grueling medical school hours, and for me, this trip is days before my 30th birthday. Given that we’d need some comfy sleep after an 8-hour flight and 2-hour drive to the airport before that, we were hoping we’d be able to recline a little on our flight over to Europe.

Digging around, I find rates for tickets are all over the map. But eventually, I get a couple of promising leads. First, Delta has a SkyMiles frequent flyer program, and they have a relationship with American Express, especially if you have an American Express + SkyMiles credit card. I don’t have one of those, but I realize that I’ve had the same American Express “Blue for Students” credit card for like 12 years, and that this card is now discontinued, so I should probably upgrade to something that actually earns me some travel points.

I sign up for SkyMiles and get instantly approved for this credit card. So far so good.

But little did I know I was about to enter the tangled web of fine print that dominates so much of corporate America and consumer interaction today.

Speaking to Delta, learning the ropes

At this point, knowing the way this game works, I make myself a rule: before I do anything, I’ll confirm the deals I’m trying to reclaim verbally over the phone with Delta reps. Ironclad, right?

I call Delta and Rep A confirms that I could upgrade a coach flight from Economy to Premium Economy by spending 20,000 SkyMiles per leg. I start researching all my options and their online help agent also points me to their advanced search page where you can get rates for specific “Fare Classes” that will qualify for SkyMiles upgrades.

She gives me this useful guide:

  • to perform a Delta Economy to Premium Economy Class upgrade, you must purchase Fare Classes Y, B, or M
  • to perform a Premium Economy to Business Class upgrade, you must purchase Fare Classes W or S

For the applicable mileage amounts, the rep helps me decode their mileage upgrade guide on their website.

So, at this point, I go back on my own and do some more research, and discover, via the website, that there are some tickets available in Fare Class W which should be upgradeable to Business. So, I call them back to confirm. Rep B confirms that I could upgrade Premium Economy (W) ticket to Business class for 15,000 SkyMiles per leg. I confirm with her verbally, “OK, so this is probably what I’m going to go with — so now I need to call AMEX to transfer my membership rewards to you guys and you’ll honor the upgrade, right?” She responds, “Right, that will work.”

Based on this, I call my AMEX agent and transfer 60,000 miles into the SkyMiles account. The rep on the phone here reminds me that this transfer is “non-reversible, so we just want to make sure you confirmed with a Delta rep you can use these miles.” I say, “Yes, I did confirm this with a Delta rep” and proceed.

At this point, though I am inside a nasty thicket of fine print, I still feel like I’m navigating it expertly. But, I hit my first roadblock. I attempt to book Premium Economy (W) tickets online, but my AMEX SkyMiles purchase is declined. The reason? The “temporary credit line” they had pre-approved me for was not enough to do the initial purchase of these tickets. The “real credit line” would have enough available, but this wouldn’t be approved for a couple weeks — and by then, these tickets might not even be available.

I call AMEX about this, who says that “any merchant will be able to split the purchase, putting your credit line’s maximum amount on the SkyMiles card, and the remainder on one of your other cards.” OK, only a minor roadblock — let’s keep going!

I call back Delta and proceed to book the Premium Economy (W) tickets. I have a very knowledgeable rep who slowly walks through all the order process. That is, until, we hit the next roadblock.

The bait & switch

Once it comes time for final confirmation, the Delta agent tells me, “Oh, darn it. The system won’t allow me to do the Premium Economy to Business class upgrade. The SkyMiles upgrade is not available.”

What?! I ask her how this could possibly be, I had just confirmed it with their rep on another call. She said, “Yea, I just don’t know, the system says it’s not available, we can’t do it.”

The agent, trying to be helpful, tells me that an Economy to Premium Economy upgrade might be available, which could at least save me some money and let me use the SkyMiles I transferred. She spends a few minutes typing at the keyboard, and then comes back with, “Aw, darn it again. It looks like the only fare that is available for upgrade is a fare that is more than you buying the Premium Economy tickets directly like you’re doing now.” Of course, this makes no sense at all — it’s just pandemonium, but here I am, in the belly of the beast.

I go ahead and decide to purchase Premium Economy (W) tickets anyway, but ask to talk to a customer service supervisor, to walk them through how “their system” makes no sense.

The hang-up

I walk the supervisor through everything above. Patiently, I describe the timeline of events, where “the system” failed, etc. She listens carefully and then…

HANGS UP on me.

Can you believe this?

The rep was getting a little defensive about what was happening, but I just patiently decided to walk her through 100% of the facts. When she argued that it’s not their fault this upgrade couldn’t happen, I explained how it doesn’t matter whose fault it is, the bottom line is that a customer was misinformed, several times, over the phone, which led to me making me feel like I had been conned. And then, she hung up.

My girlfriend was sitting right next to me, and she was floored. She said, “No way, I can’t believe they just hung up on you!” I was on a landline. At some point, I just heard a click, a phone ring, and a transfer, which went to a busy signal. I don’t think it was a mistake.

It’s at this point where I get really pissed off and start tweeting.

Wow, had one of the absolute worst customer service experiences of my life with @Delta just now. So bad I’m considering blogging about it.

and then later:

Now on Quixotic quest to inform @Delta that when you ruin a customer’s day, you should at least learn something from it.

I get a response from @DeltaAssist who starts DM’ing with me. At this point, customer support team has been dispatched, clearly.

The call-back

I call back and now spend another 20 minutes waiting to get connected to another customer service “supervisor” to hear through this story once more.

In the end, the supervisor tells me he is not able to make any of this good — the best he can do is reverse the 60,000 miles and send them back to American Express. Of course, this just puts me back at square one, but it’s better than having my American Express Membership Rewards robbed by Delta for no good reason.

Of course, I could have booked the tickets without miles or any of this trickery for just about the same price, I explained, but at this point, I’m just tired. He reminds me that the tickets I purchased from Delta are “non-refundable anyway”. Of course they are. Who cares about the customer?

I remind him that adding insult to injury, the reservations agent charged me a $25/reservation “over-the-phone-booking-fee”, that perhaps my time is worth more than that at this point, and in good faith they should at least refund that. This $25 charge is apparently “part of the system” to refund, so this he agrees to, saving me $50 — that is, $50 I shouldn’t have been charged in the first place.

I also inform him that the agent who booked my two separate flights also made the mistake of not putting me and my girlfriend seated next to each other; he notices and confirms that and updates that as well. At this point, I ask him, “Why didn’t the agent notice that, one wonders? Who’s running this airline, me or you?” He responds, “Neither of us, I’m afraid.” Poignant!

So, then we are at our final impasse. I level with the supervisor. This is “just awful” as a first customer experience. It’s definitely not ideal. I tell him that even putting the lack of upgrade availability and bait and switch aside, and even putting the fact that the customer service rep hung up on me aside, there is still an illustrative, deficiency in their system: they can’t even split a reservation purchase onto two credit cards.

Isn’t that amazing? A company where typical purchase prices can often be above several thousand dollars can’t let customers use multiple credit cards to book trips? They need to “split reservations” instead? Every merchant I’ve ever dealt with — a small restaurant, a corner coffee shop, the Dell computer company, all the way up to major multi-billion dollar companies — allow credit card splitting all the time. But Delta — no.

This is what we can expect as the software and IT running a billion-dollar company with responsibility for our lives up in the air? Wow. Gee am I glad I’m now a SkyMiles member and Delta credit card holder!

“This poor guy with a family of 8…”

The rep who booked my ticket was empathasizing with me earlier today, complaining about the credit card split situation.

She told me a story about a customer who was booking a set of Europe flights for his family of 8, and thus had $60,000 in airplane tickets to book, and how he had to book these as 4 distinct reservations, each with 2 tickets, and that this took them over an hour to put together, confirm. She said, “It was complete madness.”

I retold this story to the customer service supervisor. In re-telling this story, he laughed a few times and also empathized with me. I said, “This is really no way you should be treating your customers. Never mind me, here’s a customer who spent $60,000 with you and is trusting his family of 8 in your company’s hands, and you guys can’t even get the booking right?”

He sighed and said, “Yea, I see what you’re saying.”

The System

He then tried to explain to me that their system simply doesn’t allow split purchases, and likewise, it simply doesn’t allow SkyMiles upgrades when the dates “are not available”.

I noticed he used the words “the system doesn’t allow” a lot. So, I said to him:

Look, I know a lot about systems. I’m actually a software engineer. I know how these systems are built. But, every system starts from requirements. None of these are requirements: they are just arbitrary complexity you guys have installed in your system.

I go on:

I’m your customer; I don’t care about your system. You’re just making excuses. The customer expects to hand you money, and get back appropriate service. The customer expects not to be put through hell to hand you money, or he’ll give money to your competitors instead. And the customer expects that when you say he’s about to get a deal, and then you confirm the deal with him over the phone, you won’t, at the last minute, pull out and say, “Oh, sorry, but the system doesn’t allow it….”

Exclusions may apply

He sighed again and said, “You know, you’re right. Give me just a couple of minutes.” He comes back and says, “I know this won’t make up for all the trouble you went through, but I managed to get you and your girlfriend $200 flight travel vouchers.”

Yea, he’s right about one thing — that does not nearly make up for this. Rather than getting me what I wanted or making the situation right, he gave me two coupons that I’ll probably never use.

He then says, “I now need to remind you something about these vouchers. They last for only one year and are non-transferrable. They only apply to a qualifying air transportation ticket, and are void if sold or exchanged for compensation.” I respond, “yea, yea, I get it, more fine print.” He just responds, “yes sir.”

In other words, even if I do find an opportunity where it seems I can use these $200 vouchers, exclusions may apply.

I can’t wait for that phone call.

Post-script: are you actually an airline?

After writing this post and initially publishing it, another development happened.

The reps managed to book me and my girlfriend in separate, middle seats, far far apart.

I had actually noticed this detail earlier on in the process, and the rep on the phone assured me that he was relocating us to “adjacent seats in row 80.”

But, when checking the final confirmed booking online, we were in middle seats, in row 80 and 85.

I called them back, and they said, yes, in fact, the only two seats available in our class level were these middle seats, 5 rows apart.

Well, you can imagine at this point my patience had worn thin. I asked to speak to a supervisor once more, but instead, Delta’s rep hung up on me again. (I am not kidding. This was not a technical problem on my end; I called them from a landline.)

So, I called back and asked to speak straight to a supervisor. I finally spoke to her and she told me that unfortunately, there were no other seats available in this class level. I said then we needed to be relocated to a different cabin class and sit together, like I had originally planned, anyway. She said she couldn’t do it.

So, we told her to just refund the whole ticket. I said, “I’d rather give your competitor a couple thousand dollars than spend a dime on Delta.” So, she refunded 100% of it.

On principle, I am not going to fly this airline — and neither should you.

2 thoughts on “Delta customer service: exclusions may apply”

  1. It’s interesting, but I’ve had excellent service from Delta, and I’ve had the type of service you describe from other airlines, particularly United. I remember going to my cousin’s wedding and there were some problems (oversold is usually the root of such problems). I was behind a woman who was waiting in line. She was asking the rep in front of me for the most basic information: did he know what the problem was? Not how good the chances were of making the next flight or something, but just did he even know what the situation was. He would not give her even the most rudimentary information that basic courtesy obliged. He wouldn’t make eye contact and he was “busy” doing other things, turning his body away, etc. Of course I had all the same questions — trying to figure out a strategy to get to the wedding. I asked a clarifying question over her shoulder and he stunned me with some kind of answer that I don’t remember. All I remember is it’s the kind of thing that gets people beaten to a pulp in bars. The woman and I looked at each other and I said, “I believe he just told us to go fuck ourselves.” She agreed and all he did was reiterate and keep stonewalling. Everyone in line was appalled. I found a supervisor during my ample idle time and explained the situation, but of course I don’t believe anyone would do anything about this.

    That type of behavior has been systemic in United, in my experience. I always wonder how an entire company ends up behaving that way? I think part of the answer is, it’s not a company — it is pretty much the entire industry. And that leads me to wonder if it’s us, the customers, who are really the root cause in some way. We as a group might be placing demands on the airlines that end up creating perverse incentives for awful behavior in a race to the bottom. Is it the loyalty programs / mileage programs putting people in competition, or is it our reluctance to pay the high cost (cost != price) of air travel, or … what is it? Part of me says “don’t blame the victim” but another part of me says “you get what you pay for” and “you reap what you sow.”

  2. @Baron, I think it’s a mixture of all of that. I do think that customers are sometimes asking airlines and their employees to perform impossible feats. Obviously, if all flights are sold out and no seats are available, no amount of customer service heroics will allow the rep to satisfy the customer’s demand.

    In my case, this was a pretty basic request. I was expecting Delta to honor its own rules, its own policies, and the word of its own employees over the phone. If some impossible situation was causing them not to be able to honor this, I was expecting them to at least “make the situation right” in some way. Not just leave the customer high and dry.

    I was also expecting some recognition of how broken things were with their systems. In 2009, I did a similar take-down of Chase’s completely broken “secure document transfer” system:

    That article, after it went live, appeared on the front pages of MetaFilter, Reddit, Hacker News, and other sites. It also continued to be a top Google search result for “Chase securedx”, which thousands of people were searching every day. Indeed, that article went live 5 years ago, and continues to get hundreds of visits a day. I think probably a few hundred thousand Chase customers have seen this article, and probably many Chase prospective customers, too.

    And what you notice in comment-after-comment on that article is that years later, Chase still has not fixed the issue. I think it took them 4 years to fix. Hundreds of thousands of customers were confused and, in my estimation, millions of dollars of customer service time were wasted, for an issue that could be fixed by even a still-in-college Comp. Sci. student.

    So, I don’t blame customers. We don’t place unreasonable demands on banks. I don’t blame the employees, either. I blame bigness. Big companies are inherently slow, unresponsive, and basically just extract taxes/rents on customers for their position of dominance. No one uses Chase because they “love” Chase — they use it because they have ATMs on every street corner. And no one uses Delta because they “love” Delta, they use them because they are the only one offering the flight route they need.

    When companies have you by the balls, they don’t think they owe you any favors. And, for the most part, they’re right!

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