The Travel Advisor: The walking dead

Go online, call your travel consultant, but find alternative flights that you can suggest to the airline employee.

Airplane [illustrative] (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Airplane [illustrative]
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Imagine walking into a cavernous hall with nary a person in sight. Desks are abandoned, the air conditioner is barely functioning and the few people you can spot have a dazed, dull look on their faces.
True, while already on his way Robbie did receive an SMS that his flight was canceled, but he expected to find more signs of life at Boston’s Logan Airport.
Steadily approaching the counter, his shoes echoed on the cold stone floor – where the sole person there was a woman with a frozen smile.
Robbie runs a prestigious organization and flies often from Tel Aviv to Boston, usually in economy class. But sometimes, for 48-hour visits, he’s permitted to fly business class as he hits the ground running to meetings.
Electing to fly Delta Airlines, his business-class ticket was Tel Aviv to New York’s JFK Airport, connecting to Logan. After two days of nonstop meetings, he awoke in the morning and wisely did web check-in, providing the airline with his contact information before making his way to Logan for the return flights.
The desk clerk stated the obvious: There were no flights to JFK. Now, this was not Robbie’s first time at the rodeo, and being a frequent traveler he surmised that with a bit of prodding, a solution could be found.
Keep in mind that Delta is one of the most successful airlines in the world. Headquartered in Atlanta, it employs nearly 80,000 employees worldwide and operates a fleet of more than 700 aircraft.
More germane to Robbie’s predicament, Delta is a founding member of the SkyTeam global alliance, and participates in a transatlantic joint venture with Air France-KLM and Alitalia. Its first-quarter income for this year topped $1 billion, with net income exceeding $746 million! No matter how you interpret the figures, Delta is operated efficiently and profitably, with employees personally benefiting through profit-sharing.
When Robbie explained his urgent need to reach the connecting Delta flight at JFK, the clerk informed him that the only airline flying down to New York from Boston was Jet Blue, but that Delta does not work with them – so she could not sign his ticket over to them. In his initial complaint to Delta, he wrote of her indifference to his plight.
Robbie made his way over to Jet Blue in a separate terminal, and discovering their flights were indeed operating as planned, purchased a $540 ticket.
Upon arrival in JFK, he of course had to collect his luggage and with the assistance of a Delta supervisor, narrowly made his flight.
Returning to Israel, he sought out his travel consultant’s advice, who suggested he write to Delta’s customer service department. In his brief complaint detailing what happened, he added, “I hold Delta responsible for the flight cancellation and for the cost of a new ticket to reach my connecting flight. I further hold Delta responsible for the pain and suffering incurred as a result of the company’s failure to provide assistance of any kind. I expect Delta to fully refund the cost of the Jet Blue ticket, as well as to pay compensation of $1,000 for pain and suffering.”
Short and succinct, concise and clear was his complaint, and one would assume that at the very least, he’d get back the price of the Jet Blue ticket and perhaps some type of compensation for his pain and suffering. Delta has an excellent department in Tel Aviv dealing with customer complaints, and very quickly they came back with a response.
“I am truly sorry for the inconvenience you experienced when your Delta flight was canceled due to weather related issues,” wrote the airline representative.
“Our passengers’ time is valuable and when a flight is canceled due to weather, as was the case with your flight, it is being done for the safety of all passengers.”
All correct, and one could not ask for anything more. It was the next line that was more revealing (italics added): “I also recognize your decision to purchase a ticket on another airline was the best alternative for you at the time. Respectfully, I must decline your request to reimburse you for this expense. When a customer makes a decision to make alternative arrangements to reach their final destination, we will only refund any unused airfare.”
What Delta elected to do was refund him the $114 cost of his unused Boston-to-JFK flight. This was no favor; legally, Robbie didn’t fly it as they canceled the flight, and he was eligible for a full refund anyway.
That it was offered as some type of gesture only enraged him.
He wrote back to Delta expressing his anger at their tepid offer, and received a heartfelt reply expressing genuine sorrow at his disappointment.
In fact, the airline reiterated: “I was concerned that I missed the purpose of your communication, so I have reviewed your comments once again. Yes, other flights continued to depart while yours did not. Please understand that weather can disrupt hundreds of flights at the same time. During weather conditions, an airport can inevitably open for one takeoff.”
All factually correct, but completely missing the crux of his complaint. She ended it kindly: “The apology we offered was most sincere, and I hope someday we will have an opportunity to restore your confidence.”
It was at this stage that Robbie reached out for some guidance from this columnist. Remember, he had done everything right: He had checked their website and learning his flight was canceled, expressed his concern that a solution be found; ultimately, he solved the problem himself when Delta proved impotent to do so.
It’s what he didn’t do at the Delta counter that put him in a quandary. I always counsel that relying on an airline employee to solve one’s delayed or canceled flight is counter-intuitive. By nature, they are trained to think very narrowly and find it near-impossible to think outside of the box. In reality, the gate attendant who suggests alternative airlines is a rarity. They are paid by Delta; their cut of the profit-sharing doesn’t occur if they sign tickets over to competitors.
I wrote a strongly worded letter to Delta pointing out the obvious: Robbie had a business-class ticket from Tel Aviv to Boston round-trip. That it flew through JFK is immaterial, his ticket was to and from Boston. Why the Delta employee didn’t rebook him on either Air France, which flew that evening from Boston to Paris, then to Tel Aviv; or Alitalia to Rome, then connecting to Tel Aviv, can never be answered. It was never mentioned. No phone call to another airline was ever made. Both airlines flew that evening; both had space. They were never offered to him as an option! Nor did the clerk offer to put him up overnight at an airport hotel and fly him back the next morning.
No doubt blinded by his initial comment that he had to get to JFK for his connecting flight, this prevented her from considering any other possibilities.
In fact, by merely suggesting he go to JetBlue and purchase a new ticket, the clerk was simply passing the buck.
My terse email changed their outlook dramatically.
The customer care representative in Tel Aviv, Maureen, replied in earnest that she wanted me to understand these difficult situations are handled in the very best manner possible, and that my comments regarding how it was handled would now receive close attention. She was kind enough to follow up with a conversation, where she wisely pointed out that as none of us were there, trying to understand the mindset of the Delta employee was near-impossible. No doubt, the moment the customer said he had to get to JFK, any possibility of rerouting him through Europe escaped her mind.
This was not an excuse, but an explanation.
It’s not a passenger’s responsibility to educate an airline employee, no matter whether they are pressured by dozens of harried clients or are confronted by the sole passenger on a canceled flight. It should have been done by the employee with no cajoling or prodding by Robbie.
Sadly, he admitted to me that he had thought of flying via Europe but when the clerk didn’t suggest it, he let the matter drop. He won’t make the same mistake twice.
There are two instances where the customer should assist the airline representative to expand their horizons. One, when trying to find space on a mileage ticket and seats can be obtained on a partner airline; or two, when a flight has been canceled.
Go online, call your travel consultant, but find alternative flights that you can suggest to the airline employee.
In a follow-up letter, Maureen stepped up and as a goodwill gesture, did her best to compensate Robbie. Will Delta and other airlines repeat this mistake in the future? Most likely.
Relying upon the good graces of an airline employee often can be an exercise in futility. Here’s hoping that the one you next encounter at the airport will be more solution-oriented.
The writer is CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. For questions and comments: [email protected]