If there’s one thing I’ve learned from flying hundreds of thousands of miles per year it’s to not let the little stuff get to me. The things that annoy most people — delayed flights, mechanicals, cancellations, etc. — don’t really bother me. Those inconveniences are an acceptable, and for the most part excusable, aspect of the travel experience. After all, it’s a miracle planes can operate as safely and efficiently as they do, and while operational issues can be frustrating, they don’t really faze me.
What does bother me, however, is something actually within the airline’s control — crap customer service. I have very little tolerance for agents that make up rules, are rude to passengers, or don’t apply logic to situations. Don’t get me wrong, I still try to be overly nice to them since I figure I’ll get further that way, but it really irks me. Yesterday was a terrific example of how poor customer service can ruin a travel day, so I thought I’d give y’all the play by play:
- We were supposed to fly from New York to Atlanta to Detroit to Sao Paulo, a fairly easy travel day for this mileage run.
- As a reminder, we’re on paid business class tickets.
- Admittedly, they were really cheap business class tickets, but at no point was the ticket cost brought up as a reason for why things happened the way they did.
Amazing service from New York to Atlanta
The day wasn’t all bad. On our flight from New York to Atlanta we had one of the most spectacular flight attendants I’ve ever had. Her name was Julie, and she was incredibly hilarious, attentive, and constantly smiling. She was Minneapolis based, and dare I say it, actually kinda makes me want to move there if everyone else is even half as friendly as she was.
Atlanta to Detroit flight goes mechanical
We were supposed to have an hour connection in Atlanta, followed by an hour connection in Detroit. Upon arriving in Atlanta we got to our scheduled departure gate right around boarding time, only to find there was a gate change. No problem, these things happen. We went straight to the new gate, though there wasn’t actually a plane there.
The plane arrived about 30 minutes later, though we were then informed of a mechanical problem with the aircraft and that they were trying to decide whether they could fix the plane, or if they would have to find us a new plane. After a while they decided on a new plane, and the departure was rescheduled for 6PM. Again, no big deal, and these things happen. If you travel often enough you probably have an idea as to how these things will shake out, and know that you have to be proactive when schedule adjustments happen.
Our connection from Detroit to Sao Paulo was scheduled to leave at 8PM, so a 6PM departure meant it was highly unlikely we’d make that connection. And it was critical we fly to Sao Paulo that evening, since we had another flight from Sao Paulo back to the US the following day.
Off to the SkyClub for unacceptable alternatives
The line at the gate was long, so we headed to the SkyClub hoping to be rebooked. This is a basic tenet for frequent flyers, as the agents in the lounges are nearly universally more helpful (and less rushed) than individual gate agents. As we walked we checked flight loads and evaluated our options – Delta had no space in business class on their flight from Atlanta to Sao Paulo, and there’s no way they could get us to New York in time for the Delta flight to Sao Paulo.
Given that, the only reasonable alternative seemed to be on Delta to New York and then American to Sao Paulo, since American’s flight leaves over two hours later than the Delta flight. Knowing what the options are can typically speed up the rebooking process, and most of the time agents are happy when you’ve done your research, at least in my experience. So Ernestina in the A17 SkyClub tried to “help” us, though couldn’t have been more unhelpful. After typing for a long time and making a phone call she didn’t even address our idea of rerouting through New York, and instead suggested booking us on a Delta flight to Brasilia and then a GOL flight to Sao Paulo. The Delta flight would have been in business class on a 757 (which is a totally different product with recliner seats), while the connection to Sao Paulo would be in coach on GOL, and we would arrive four hours later.
We again suggested the routing on American instead, which would get us there in the cabin we booked, around the same time, and in a similar product. Ernestina was nonplussed.
“No, we can’t do that here, call the Medallion line.”
“Ma’am, I’m not a Medallion, how would I call the Medallion line?”
“Oh, you can call them anyway.”
Typically, you can always get more done by dealing with an agent in person than over the phone, especially when it’s time sensitive. At this point the flight we were wanting to take to New York was leaving in 45 minutes. Since she was being utterly unhelpful, I politely asked if she could call a supervisor.
No supervisor for you!
“Sir, we don’t call supervisors to the SkyClub.”
“Sorry, what do you mean?”
“Oh we just don’t call them here, we only call them in the terminal.”
“Okay, it seems strange that you wouldn’t call a supervisor to a lounge for your premium passengers, but if you can only call a supervisor to the terminal, can you do that and I’ll meet them wherever they are?”
“Oh no, I can’t do that. We don’t call supervisors from the SkyClub!”
I’d been fine with the entire situation up until this point – things happen when you travel, and I spend enough time calling airlines to know that not every agent is equally trained (hence my asking for a supervisor). When agents start making up rules, however, rather than just admitting they don’t know and asking for help – that’s the point where I start to get irritated, and deep inside a bit angry.
So basically I’m being told:
- Ernestina is the highest up person I’m allowed to talk to at Delta.
- Of all the places that they’d call a supervisor to, you’d think the SkyClub would be at the top of the list since that’s where (theoretically) “valuable” customers would be.
- But no, they’ll only call them to the terminal, but not, apparently, for me.
At this point my friend got on the phone with Delta’s international reissue desk, and I decided to talk to another agent. I approached him and asked for clarification about whether they really can’t call a supervisor to a SkyClub. He said that wasn’t the case, but suggested he try and help me instead. And he did try.
In the meantime, my friend continued to work the the phone agent at the international reissue desk, and within 20 minutes they had rebooked us in first class on Delta to New York, and business class on American down to Sao Paulo. Exactly as we’d suggested to Ernestina nearly 45 minutes prior.
We then ran towards the departure gate, getting there just shortly after pre-boarding had commenced, and asked the gate agent for our boarding passes.
Our first class seats have been given away and it’s our fault, damnit!
“Wait a minute, you in first class? We don’t have any seats in first class.”
When we were rebooked (about 20 minutes prior to our arrival at the gate) there were still three first class seats for sale, so clearly they had just processed upgrades. After doing a bit of typing she asked her colleague who the last two people to get upgraded were, indicating to me that they were willing to downgrade them.
Now I don’t care that much about first class on a two hour flight, but what pissed me off is the attitude the gate agent gave us from this point forward. She decided she didn’t have time to rescind two upgrades, which is fair enough. But she also started reprimanding us for even being booked on this flight — “you shoulda never booked yourself on this flight so close to departure, we don’t have time for this.”
I mean, by that logic they should’ve never had a mechanical because it’s not like we wanted to be rebooked. If the gate agent had said “I’m sorry, there was a lag in the system and we weren’t looking to see if anyone else booked onto the flight” I would’ve been fine with that, but blaming the customer for being rebooked on a flight because of a mechanical is pathetic.
“They didn’t reissue your tickets properly.”
At this point she continued bitching about how our tickets weren’t reissued properly, and basically slapping our wrists for being rebooked on the flight. The tickets were reissued properly, the issue is that when she downgraded us from a first class fare bucket to an economy class fare bucket the ticket had to be reissued once again, which of course she hadn’t done. Eventually she just told us to board in seats 32B and 33A and noted we wouldn’t get boarding passes.
“You’re going to have to gate check your bags”
Mind you we’d been at the gate since boarding started, but due to the screw up with our first class seats and subsequent reissue, we would now be the last people to board. The gate agent told us we’d have to gate check our bags.
Oh hell no.
We reminded her we’re connecting to another airline with a fairly short connection at JFK, and she acknowledges it and says “okay.”
So we went down the jet bridge, and the gate agent there tagging bags again tells us we’re going to have to gate check our bags. We nicely reminded her we’d been at the gate since boarding started, had been downgraded, and were now connecting to a non-partner airline at JFK two hours later. Her response?
“You have two hours, that’s plenty of time. Your bag will make it.”
In three million miles of travel, I don’t think I’ve ever gate checked a bag before, and really didn’t want to start with this flight. If the bags didn’t make our connection to American in New York we’d be screwed, given that we were turning back around to the US the following day (and the bag would still go to Brazil on the next flight, at which point we’d be back in the US again).
I asked if she’d at least let me try to squeeze it into an overhead bin, as I’ve never seen a plane that truly had full overhead bins (people are just bad overhead bin stuffers). She said no, and that we needed to board now, “or else.”
She took our bags, we got on the plane, and of course the closet was not only wide open (I even asked the flight attendant if she’d be willing to store a bag in the closet and she said of course — go figure it was too late at this point), but there’s also plenty of stuff that could have been arranged more efficiently in the overhead bins, with plenty of open gaps.
Guess what? Our bags didn’t make it
Not f*&#&^@ surprisingly, we waited at the carousel at Sao Paulo Airport this morning, only to find out our bags hadn’t made it and were still in fact sitting in New York.
So now we’re in Brazil without even a change of clothes (since those were in our carry-ons), and these might be the most difficult bags to ever track down given that they’re likely heading in the opposite direction of us.
I just want to be clear. What pisses me off aren’t delays, mechanicals, lost bags, or even for that matter the unwillingness of an agent to accommodate us on another carrier, but rather:
- Agents that make up the most ridiculous, illogical policies ever (“we can’t call a supervisor to a SkyClub”)
- Rude gate agents that blame operational issues on passengers (“well you shouldn’t have rebooked yourself on this flight,”)
- Gate agents that are unwilling to apply logic to situations (when changing from T3 to T8 at JFK it’s highly unlikely any bags will make it in two hours, especially given the two airlines don’t even have a partnership, so interlined bags may only be picked up every couple of hours, at most)
At the end of the day, operational issues crop up at every airline, and it’s how the front-line agents react and respond to them that sets an airline apart. I started this trip completely blown away by Delta’s service, and impressed with their product. I even went so far as to claim that while “Delta may not know how to run a loyalty program, they sure to know how to run an airline.”
So, don’t get me wrong, while this could happen at any US airline, it simply confirms to me that Delta is no different than the rest. If I want to be blamed for something out of my control and treated like crap I can fly any US airline, so I’ll be sticking to those that at least offer decent loyalty programs!