Two Seats Away From Not Hating Delta Airlines

Two Seats Away from Not Hating Delta Airlines

Six away on my second attempt. Still hoping to get home.
Six away on my second attempt. Still hoping to get home.

JOHN F. KENNEDY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, NY – April 8, 2017 – Welcome to my new home, the terminals of Delta Airlines at this large and surprisingly clean international airport. Though not a native of JFK (as we locals call it), I feel like I have lived here long enough to call the collection of gates, restaurants and automated refuse containers my new home. Yet like most great origin stories, this one almost never happened. Had I been able to sneak out of this place earlier today as a standby passenger on flight 2175 to Miami, then I wouldn’t be writing. I was two seats away from not reaching one of the highest levels of frustration of my life as a consumer. I was two seats away from not hating Delta Airlines.

One hundred and twenty-five plus passengers were ready to fly to Miami last night, and gate agents were trying to make room on the overbooked flight. I would later learn that Delta and overbooking go hand in hand. The agent first offered $500 for anyone willing to give up their seat. Not enough takers. Then $800. Some movement but not enough. Eventually the offer was $1,300 to beg-off this flight and book a ride for the next day. I thought about it, but 1,300 smackers turned out to be a magic number for a group of more-decisive travelers. We were now ready to board. I had been chatting with a veteran flight attendant who was taking the jump seat back to Miami. She was looking at the monitors and said something that should have made me nervous: “All we need now is a pilot.”

I looked out the window as the flight attendants went aboard. The plane was being fueled and restocked and the engine was spinning. But no pilot. Next stop: cancellation hell.

Turns out that I had unknowingly wandered into one of the worst travel snafus in recent memory. I had flown from Miami to New York on Wednesday morning, and that flight had been able to swing around a nasty storm that was battering Atlanta and other parts of the East Coast. By that afternoon, I was wandering around the city and preparing for a speech at Ragan’s PR and Media Relations Summit. At this gathering of public relations professional from around the country, we spent a day and a half talking about media relations and crisis communications – with a huge focus on what brands often do wrong when bad things happen. (The irony is not lost on me, that’s for sure.) I spoke about online reputation issues and my book How to Protect (Or Destroy) Your Reputation Online.

The key thing here is that the weather in New York was gorgeous on Wednesday, rainy on Thursday and a bit overcast on Friday. The big storm that thumped Delta’s Atlanta hub was long gone.

My flight was cancelled on Friday night and the soonest Delta can get me out is Monday afternoon. If I don’t get lucky, I will spend more time in JFK than I did in Manhattan for the conference. And again, not a cloud in the sky.

From what I can gather, Delta isn’t staffed or well-organized enough to handle mishaps like this. They don’t have enough flight attendants and pilots to fly the planes without running afoul of FAA regulations regarding flight hours and such. As we speak, the plane I hope to board to Miami (again on standby) is sitting on the runway without a pilot. Originally scheduled to push off at 7:25 p.m., it has been delayed four hours as Delta doesn’t have a pilot to fly it. So I wait…

In the grand scheme of things, I’m merely inconvenienced and frustrated – albeit very frustrated. After my second missed standby attempt, I called my wife and said: “I could cry and I haven’t cried over anything short of a funeral and the birth of my children since I was a teenager.”

Want to call Delta and talk to a reservation agent? Be prepared to wait at least two hours. Someone said the pre-announced wait time reached seven hours at one point. I called the line at 4 a.m. this morning and slept with my mobile phone speaker on. An agent picked up at 6:15 a.m.

Try to find a flight out of New York at all this weekend? Tough luck. Gate agents are rebooking passengers for Tuesday.

Want a voucher for a second hotel night? Better start begging now.

Try to reach customer service on Twitter? Ha!

One thing I have to say is that the vast majority of employees of Delta have been cordial and supportive. Most of their hands are tied, and this is not a great working environment given the number of unhappy customers.

Like I said, I’m frustrated and inconvenienced and desperately want to see my wife and kids, but I’m a big boy. I can handle it – save for one near breakdown of my otherwise humor-laden steel will.

Others don’t share my perspective. Missed connections, both air-travel related and personal, predominate the many stories circulating around the terminal. Business trips, reunions, birthdays, funerals – all missed. But there’s more:

· A mother from Austin spent two days battling Delta while her husband managed their two toddlers back home.

· I watched a woman break down in tears after she thought she won the standby lottery to Salt Lake City. She was halfway down the jetway when the gate agent pulled her back.

· One of my Miami bound compatriots didn’t make it home for her 33rd wedding anniversary, the only time she has ever not celebrated it with her husband.

· A family from Portugal couldn’t get to South Florida for their cruise. The stress of cancelled flight-after-flight sent the matriarch of the family on a return leg to Europe rather than continue to fight the standby blues. Lots of families not getting on cruise ships this weekend.

· A little boy who had been up for 18 hours decided, in the middle of the terminal, to put his head down on the fleece pullover that I had draped over my carry-on bag. He would have fallen asleep had his mother not pulled him away.

· And one more: The bride who missed her own wedding! (Drops mic.)

In about an hour, I will try one more time to catch a standby flight to Miami. Otherwise, I’m tossing in the towel and will just find a hotel room until Monday. Delta, you let me down. I was two seats away.

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