Why Delta Needs to Empower Its Agents

I admit, I booked my flight in haste.  Under normal circumstances, I’d never book a 36 minute connection.  But I was greiving, flying to a funeral, and I needed to get home and back, so I didn’t pay close attention to the flight details. Once in New Jersey,  I called Delta concerned about the short connection.   Delta assured me “This is a legal connection, your gates are close, it should be OK”. But the agent gave me one warning “If you are delayed at all, tell an agent to put you on another flight.  Any delay will make your connection too short, and they will rebook”.

I did what I was supposed to.  I got to JFK with plenty of time.  Even thought I wanted to check my bag, I didn’t so I could check it at the gate if needbe and have the flight flexibility.   I waited by the gate. I asked the gate agent at 4:05 how the flight looked.  He said it was on-time and we should have no problems.  

At 4:41pm (10 minutes after we were supposed to start boarding), the gate agent made an announcement:  the crew was running late.  I went up to the agent and asked him if we’d still leave on time.  He said no, we would definitily be late.  The sign still was reading 5:02 (an early departure from the original 5:07).  I told the gate agent my situation.  He said, “Go to the service desk, they can rebook you.  I can’t.”  

I ran over to the service desk and explained my situation.  She looked at the computer “Your flight is still showing ontime.  I can’t rebook you unless it’s canceled.  You’ll have to use the white direct-line phones”.  I went over to the direct-line phones where I was put in touch with a service agent.  I explained the situation a 3rd time.  By now it’s 5pm.  She puts me on hold to “explore it, and she if there is anything she can do since it’s showing on time”.  Then I hear my flight boarding.  I check the app, it’s still showing the flight as on time.  

I make the decision to hang up, not wanting to miss the flight and getting hit with a penalty for missing my flight.  I go up to the flight and was at the tail end to board.  The agent was surprised to see me.  I told him that they couldn’t rebook me until it was showing as late and that I would indeed not make my connection.  I check on the jetway, it’s still showing on time.   As I board the plane, I hear the jetway agent call in and tell someone the flight crew was delayed.  I board the plane, the app is still showing on time.  I put up my bags, sit down, check my phone and now the app says “Flight delayed and affects your connection.  Please click here to rebook on another flight”.  I grab a flight attendent, show him and ask to get off the plane.  Too late, the door is closed.  

To add insult to injury, turns out we missed our slot to take off and had to go to the back of the line.  We take off exactly 1 hour after we were scheduled to push off.  We had in-flight Wi-Fi on this plane with free access to delta.com.  I got to watch my connection time dwindle until it disappeared.  My conncetion was boarding as we were decending.  By the time we landed, the connection had taken off.  It was the last flight of the evening to the San Francisco Bay Area.  

The good news is the ground agents in Salt Lake were great.  My flight has already been rebooked for the first one in the morning, and I was giving a voucher to a Comfort Inn right near the airport with free shuttles to and from the airport.  

What annoyed me about the whole thing was how employees had no power to help.  The gate agent knew the flight was delayed.  But they didn’t have the power to update the offical status online.  Since the “offical status” was not updated, the agents had no power to help me rebook.  Everyone was trying to send me on the flight to Salt Lake and just cross thier fingers I would make the connection.  If any of these agents had had some power, I would have been on a direct flight later that night, and not spending the night at Salt Lake City.   In addition, due to all this, Delta spent approximately $100 to house me in Salt Lake City.  If they had the power to rebook, it would have saved Delta money.  There were at least  10 other people on my flight in similar situations.

A few learnings:

  • I think this goes without saying, but I like to have at least 45 minutes for a domestic connection (1 hour if the kids are with me) and 2 hours for an international one.  This gives you some room for error.  
  • If you are making a tight connection, check what flights leave to your area after you connection.  A tight connection is okay if you can get on a flight later.  If you are making the last flight of the night, don’t push your luck unless you want to spend the night in the city.  
  • Know your airline’s Contract of Carriage.  Most airlines state there 260 rule, a rule that requires an airline to make reasonable accommodations, up to and including booking you on a different airline, if the delay is their fault.  (of course the list of things that they don’t consider their fault is extensive, and can be found in their Contract of Carriage online).  If you are delayed more than four hours, you are entitled to compensation (Usually a food voucher) and if you are delayed overnight you are entitled to a hotel room or it’s cost.  I’d suggest having those rules available if need be.  
  • Don’t shoot the messenger.   Everyone is annoyed, everyone wants to get home (or on to their vacation), no one wants to be there.  So many people were yelling at the customer service agents when it was not their fault.  And as I discovered, a lot of their power has been taken away.  Having a pleasant attitude, explaining your sitution, and asking for help gets you a long way.  Being the one person who isn’t yelling gets you a lot, like an earlier flight, a better seat, a free checked bag, even once (a very long time ago) , an upgrade to 1st class.  Save your complaint for Delta corporate, who can actually do something about it.  
  • Put your complaint in writing.  Too many people yell at the ground staff and never put their complaints in writing.  Legally, written complaints have to be maintained and reviewed.  Use all forms of communication to do so.  Blog posts, tweets, Facebook, email, online complaint forms, letters, etc..  Written complaints that are well written, state the issue in clear terms, and propose reasonable solutions get the attention of corporate.  

Plans go awry and occasionally travel plans don’t go as expected.  That I’m aware of.  I’m not mad that I missed my connection.  I’m mad that it was avoidable.  While I understand that information and data has vastly improved over the years, there is still nothing like people on the ground who actually know the situation and can see with their own eyes.  The fact that on the ground gate agents and service agents are not given more power to help is a serious detriment to Delta.   When your gate agent who is checking you in actually encourages you to bring your bag instead of checking it for free because he knows you are spending the night in Salt Lake, Delta, you have a problem.   

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My view of Salt Lake...the morning after I was supposed to be home.

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2 thoughts on “Why Delta Needs to Empower Its Agents

    • No its not. This is crazy because I know it’s not always been this way. I flew Delta regularly back in 2005 as a consultant, and I remember that the gate agent was able to do all sorts if stuff for us, including rerouting us if there was concern of a delay or missed connection. The fact that they’ve put all the power in the hands of a phone bank is ridiculous.

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