Delta Airlines Canceled Three of Our Four Tickets for No Discernable Reason

This story does not end well. In fact, for all I know, it doesn’t even end.

We, family of four, arrived at Manchester Airport a good two and a half hours before our flight, which was due to depart at 11:55. There was a considerable queue even then, but it was making steady progress, and during the half hour or so it took us to get to the front of it, we endured being asked first basic security questions, then having our carry-on bags individually tagged with security flimsies, then having the usual pointless questions about who packed our bags, whether they ever escaped, and a command recitation of all our electrical gear. This concluded with ‘Mike’ the security guy taking our passports away and tapping stuff on a laptop for a long time. Then he, as he had promised, brought them back.

Eventually we made it to check-in. And this is where the real trouble started. I never like it when the ticket clerks stop looking bored and start looking like they are concentrating, and this fellow was definitely concentrating. For some reason, all the luggage tags were coming up in my son’s name, and only one boarding pass would print. He checked the printer. He did a tappety-tap routine on the keyboard. He consulted with the silver-haired gentleman on the left, and then the young lady on the right. The codes just were not right on the tickets and he didn’t know how to fix it. Sorry, he said at last, but you’ll have to go over there to the ticket desk.

It’s now about two hours before flight time, there’s no queue at the ticket desk, I’m holding a little piece of paper that Delta printed out for me during our outbound kerfuffle which shows our four return tickets as “Confirmed”. What can go wrong?

Lots.

The lady at the ticket counter was not wearing a name tag, just an Air France pin, so I cannot alas report her name, but she wasted little time in getting to the point: we didn’t have tickets. Or, rather, my 14 year old son had a ticket, but the other three e-tickets we were relying on to fly home with had been refunded. They were gone. And the plane was full anyway. It was clear from her manner that she was entirely open to the possibility that we had somehow tried to do something underhanded (pocket the money?) and then put one over Delta Airlines. We explained the saga of our outbound flight, and she put in a call to some office somewhere who were, she asserted, the only people who could figure out what had happened (she didn’t say ‘and make it right’). No one in the airport had the authority to do anything. So she called Fares. Long wait. No joy. She called Global Assistance. There was another long round of holding during which she told me to just wait. We were told that the flight would close an hour before departure, and the minutes continued to tick by while the anonymous lady, secure in her disempowerment, displayed no sign of urgency or even concern about our predicament. Our request to see a supervisor were at first not even acknowledged, then we were told there was none, only a manager, and he was off at the gate doing operations and thus unavailable. Take that, worm. (No she didn’t say it — in words.)

The hour came and went. Eventually — after it was too late to do us any good — the matter was kicked upstairs to “Jen” who apparently actually works for Delta instead of for whoever it is who runs the front line that Delta relies on to deal with customers. By the time matters got to Jen, it seemed to have dawned on Delta as a corporate entity that we had not in fact engaged in a scheme to embezzle, nor sold our tickets for a side jaunt to Fiji while abandoning a child to fly as an unaccompanied minor to a city where there would be no one to collect him. Jen was in fact very sympathetic. But at that point there was little she could do. Not only was it too late to get us on our original flight, but there were basically no other flights out of Manchester which would get us to Miami today. And even if there were such a flight, they did not as yet have whatever it was they needed to actually issue us a ticket. Jen went off to the back to make phone calls in the hope of resurrecting our tickets, a process that consumed more than another hour.

Meanwhile, I’m standing at the counter, resisting offers to go sit at the corner as there is no longer anyone waiting to be helped (no more flights, remember?). Every so often another member of staff comes out from the back with a progress report which consists of “she’s still on the phone.”

Eventually Jen is off the phone. It’s now going on to about 12:30. They are prepared to rebook us on a new flight once they have recreated our tickets. Alas, they haven’t yet actually succeeded in producing tickets for us, and the only flight left today would be from Paris at 5pm. And even if they could get us to Paris by 5, there are no seats on the flight. So we’re stuck. Bonus day in Manchester (with our bags, but without much in the way of clean laundry), they’ll provide a hotel, just hold on while they check if there are rooms…

Half an hour later there are rooms, comped meals, but as yet no tickets. I’m prepared to stay there until we get them or Hell freezes over, whichever comes first, but “Declan F.” the supervisor is now to hand, full of beautiful promises of tickets in the morning presented in an Irish accent, even an invocation of the Deity, and Caroline decides to believe him. So we check into the airport hotel, endure some more confusion (our names have become quite garbled in the transition), and have to be back at the ticket counter at 9am tomorrow.

For what it’s worth, Jen and Declan have a theory as to what happened. In the first installment of how badly things have gone with Delta, I explained how Delta had mechanical problems and rebooked us on BA,

… we are told that if we run like crazy to BA, two terminals over, we can catch a flight to London and connect from there to MAN. I’m given an itinerary, on which is scrawled “talk to Andrea” — she’s the person at BA who will know all about us.

We run, having to exit the security zone to get to the BA ticket counter. We make it. But there’s no Andrea. She’s going to be on our flight and is changing. Not that it matters. It seems that when charming Delta lady #2 gave me our new itinerary, she neglected to include a “FIM”, which is something you have to have if you have an e-ticket and are being moved to another airline; apparently paper ticket holders, that vanishing breed, don’t need them. No “FIM”, no ride.

So, leaving the family to hold the fort, I run back to the Delta counters, two terminals away (at least I don’t have to re-enter security). I find the last man standing. Between gasps, I tell our story. He vanishes to find a supervisor. In time he returns, and fills out a FIM, a ticket-sized little form that comes in quadruplicate, in a laborious manner that suggests he has never seen one before and is a bit suspicious about the use of ink-based writing implements. At last he is done.

Jen and Declan say that they think that the lady who first booked us on BA tried to rebook our e-ticket using some e-ticket related tie-up between Delta and BA. If she’d done it right, I would not have needed the fabulous FIM. But perhaps she didn’t do it quite right, and as a result the BA people couldn’t see the ticket, leading them to demand the paper FIM. The Delta guy who created the FIM worked off a record that had already been modified, so even if he knew what he was doing it might all have been doomed by then, and he may well not have known what he was doing either. In any case, their guess is that at some point along the way, our return tickets (well, three out of four anyway) were paid over to BA as well as our outgoing tickets. That was wrong, and Delta’s fault rather than ours. Certainly Occam’s razor suggests that the screwup happened in MIA when we were re-routed. But if you ask me, the system did not fail well.

Did I mention that tomorrow’s plane was 10 people over booked before the nice folks in Manchester added the four of us to the passenger list?

I have a lifetime gold card on American Airlines. They’re not perfect, but they have never canceled a ticket of mine with no warning or reason.. Delta was noticeably cheaper for this flight than American, and four times noticeably adds up to appreciably. But I think I’ll be willing to pay a significant premium to fly AA next time.

And I really have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow morning. (But hey, Delta, if you're reading, how about business class?)

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8 Responses to Delta Airlines Canceled Three of Our Four Tickets for No Discernable Reason

  1. Randy Paul says:

    Don’t heap praise on American just yet. I was AAdvantage Gold/Platinum for ten years. When I went to Brazil for my wedding, I flew JFK to Miami; Miami to Caracas: Caracas to Miami; Miami to São Paulo; São Paulo to Belo Horizonte. It took me 48 hours.

    On four occasions I have spent nights in hotels near the São Paulo airport because of AA screw-ups.

    The day my Dad died, they canceled a connecting flight out of Chicago to Huntsville, AL, depriving me of 7 of his final hours.

    They all suck.

  2. Melinda says:

    US Airways has done similar crap to me, including rebooking me – without telling me – on a flight home from Anchorage that had *5* flight segments, the last 3 of which were for the day before the flight left Anchorage . It took an hour on the phone with customer “service” to get it down to 4 segments, all in sequential order (!!), but then equipment problems on segment 2 led to a cascade of events requiring that every time I deplaned from a segment I had to dash to customer service to fix the problems created by the previous customer service rep. US Airway sent me a voucher for $300 by way of compensation (this had been on a business class ticket, and they had flown me steerage almost all the way home). Bwah.

    But still, refunding your ticket without telling you. Yikes.

    Randy’s right – they all suck.

  3. Mitch Guthman says:

    I know that this is probably not a good time to mention this but I personally like Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand to the UK. Prices tend to be reasonably good, fleet is typically newer and better configured from a passenger’s point of view, the food is much better, you can use air miles from US flag carriers to buy tickets. Also, I have found both of these airlines to be more receptive to my needs and (within obvious limits) their employees seem much more will to exert themselves to make my journey easier and more pleasant. In short, they don’t suffer from the many deficiencies of US flagged airlines.

  4. jim says:

    It is a mark of a fragile system that failures cascade. And the air travel system is nothing if not fragile. It isn’t (just) that they all suck. It’s that the system pushes them to suck. Delta perhaps more than the others because it’s under more financial pressure and therefore cuts more corners where it’s allowed to (we talk of deregulation, but all that means is airlines are somewhat less regulated than they were — they’re still highly controlled, which is a good thing: we want to go up and come down in one piece). It’s interesting, I think, that everyone knows the system is fragile, but we all conspire not to talk of it, until it’s forced on our attention.

    This, of course, is no consolation to someone caught in cascading failures. I hope you get home soon.

  5. Ouch! I was almost in your same position on a trip back from Alaska. Luckily, they found a flight for us at the very end of the day. I don’t know how upset I would be in your shoes, but it would not be pretty. What a messy deal for all involved. Is it fair to say that you will never fly Delta again? I think I would stick with AA after this.

    :O)

    George

  6. wcw says:

    Me, I decided long ago to fly the easy way: hub-to-hub only. Is there a reasonably priced flight to the smaller city to which you are headed? Don’t chance it. Just fly to [Chicago|Paris|Los Angeles|whatever] and [take a train|rent a car|walk|whatever]. Really.

    And this is Koolaid I drink. Was our last flight (with an infant — whee) suddenly three hours delayed and counting (who knows when that flight got in): we were not in South Bend, Indiana, our actual destination and home of a tiny little airport. We were at Midway headed to anything near San Francisco. A little pleading and quick as you please, onto a plane headed to Oakland.

    What would a train to London have been?

  7. michael says:

    Ground transport is expensive, slow, and the intermodal transfer (train/plane) is hard with luggage. Timing is hard too. The planes from London tend to leave very early, so you either drive all night or have to rent a hotel room too. Trains are costly. The options are just plain limited.

    And ticket prices are a lot higher than they used to be.

  8. John Flood says:

    Michael, you have my sympathies for these awful trials you’ve been through. There is something about the impermeability of the system. Suddenly systems are no longer responsible for their actions. They are anonymous and dumb. And therefore no one is accountable. The fact that you held on and perservered shows some tenacity. You are to be congratulated. I would demand some compensation from Delta. Indeed ask them not for money but MCOs (miscellaneous charges orders) which are vouchers that can be used to purchase flights. They are easy to shift around airlines: you wouldn’t need to use them on Delta only. They are effectively costless for the airline.

    I once was flying from Hanover in Germany to London, a very short journey. I was hit by cancelled flights, delays, rerouted to Paris, where I too encountered the notorious FIM! In Charles de Gaulle airport Air France and BA are at opposite ends approximately 1 kilometre apart. I ran a lot that day with luggage in order to get that bloody FIM. (No one seems to remember it until it’s too late.) A one hour flight ultimately took 8 hours!

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