For over 20 years I have flown with you. For much of that time under Delta Air Lines Frequent Flyer Program (then SkyMiles) number ***. You’ve taken me to Europe, to Canada, and most of the continental United States. At some point I was hoping to fly with you to reach my goal of visiting all seven continents before 2014. I still have South America, Antarctica, Africa, and Asia to go. Unfortunately this will no longer be the case as I am cancelling my SkyMiles membership and will not choose to fly with Delta again.
On May 16th, 2011 I endured the worst air travel experience I’ve ever had. There are worse travel tales I’ve heard, and my troubles certainly don’t involve war, death, hunger, or physical pain. Still, I’m sure anyone reading this letter can see exactly why I would no longer choose to fly with you. In recounting this tale to friends and family it has taken upwards of a half hour, but I’ll attempt to be brief.
As a gift, my girlfriend booked travel to California for me for my birthday. I don’t get to see my mother much and was looking forward to as much time as I could get with her. Flight 2319 from La Guardia airport was to depart at 10:11 AM and have me in Minneapolis for connecting flight 1151 at 12:30 PM. My arrival in San Francisco was scheduled for around 4:30 or so, giving me time to make the hour’s drive north and have dinner with the woman who went through 36 hours of labour to birth me so many years ago.
Alas this was not to be. That morning I woke up, brewed a cup of coffee, and sat down to check my flight status. I live ten minutes from La Guardia, you see, so if my plane’s delayed it makes sense to stick around in the comfort of home for a bit. At that time all flights were showing on time, so I had a bite to eat and left the house in time to make it to the airport an hour ahead of my flight.
My first surprise upon entering the Delta terminal was the sheer chaos of the place. Lines were spilling out of all the available queues and everyone looked confused. While I was in the line for the self-service kiosk to check in, I overheard people talking about delayed flights and considered I would take a look once I checked in. After ten minutes of waiting I got to a kiosk, entered my info, and was met with the message that my request couldn’t be processed at that time. It mentioned finding an attendant, but none was around at that moment.
So I tried again. Same message. By this time it was 9:25 or so and I was starting to get anxious what with all the talk of delayed flights and long lines. By this time as well there was a Delta representative assisting customers at the kiosks again, so I made him aware of my situation. He indicated the queue next to the kiosks and said I should speak with a representative.
My anxiety level went up a notch. Seeing this line of 30 or more people turned the thumb screws on my “missing a flight” paranoia. However, that’s where I was to go, so I went. Minutes went by. The line barely moved. By 9:40 I was looking up my flight on the phone. It was delayed to 10:26. This gave me a few minutes of relief. I only had one bag to check, the security line appeared surprisingly short, and I’d be at the front of the line soon I hoped.
My hopes were dashed when, three back from the front of the line, the previously-mentioned Delta representative by the kiosks shouted out some dreadful words. The line I was in, the one he’d sent me to, was only for self-service.
If you didn’t have a boarding pass, you needed to go to a different line.
Now I was mad. I’d done everything right. Checked my flight status, got to the airport on time, and still I was close to being late. The Delta rep indicated an entirely different line to get in this time. He didn’t even apologize for telling me the wrong line. What was I to do? The line there was now really long and I probably only had 10 – 20 minutes before the flight would close to boarding.
Still, I dutifully got in line. Around 9:45, though, with the line not moving, I knew for sure I was in trouble. Thankfully I saw one of those dedicated red coat customer service reps. You know, the ones Donald Sutherland goes on and on about in your television commercials? As she passed by I caught her attention. She didn’t stop, so I had to kind of shout out what was going on and if I could get to the front of the line. She told me flatly no and gave me a rebooking number even though my flight was still going to fly.
At 10 AM I finally got up to the desk. Your customer service rep here was friendly and even called the gate for me, but it was too late. I wasn’t going to make that flight now. The flight I’d been on time for. After ten minutes of searching for an alternate flight for me, she could not find anything. She apologized, but needed to take other customers in line and would have another rep take over. This was okay and the second rep was quite helpful.
While I was going to be later, she did find me a flight to Minneapolis and on to San Francisco that would get me in just a little bit over an hour later than my original flight. This was great, and I paid $50 for the privilege of being made to miss my original flight and have another one rebooked. I figured I’d take that one up with your customer service later as all I really wanted to do was check in, get through security, and sit down.
Once in the, by this point, very crowded terminal, I found a place to sit down and read for a while, then caught up with some email from work. Granted I was supposed to be on vacation, but a small airport full of people isn’t really all that pleasant. My new flight (651) left at 2:29, so I had some time to grab lunch. At around 1:15 I took my (quite tasty) yogurt parfait and headed to my gate.
I leaned against the window, popped open my lunch, and the gate agent came over the speakers.
“Wow, this granola is really good,” I thought. That was the last pleasant thought I had for a few hours. The agent indicated that this flight was now delayed an hour. Okay, where did that leave me and my connecting flight. Ah, yes, that was in the next sentence as the gate agent asked to see any passengers whose connecting flights left after 5 PM. Mine left at 5:15.
This time I was pretty fast and made it to the desk before anyone else. Apart from a beer later, this was the only bright spot during my travels. The gate agent was generally unsympathetic and told me that I could get on a later flight to Minneapolis, but wouldn’t be able to get on the later flight to San Francisco. It was full and the stand by was full. She apparently didn’t have time to search for another way to get me there, but said a flight was leaving from JFK at 5 PM.
If you’re not familiar with New York City airports JFK is the larger International airport in the city. It’s also on the opposite side of the city from La Guardia and travel between the two isn’t all that easy and cheap. I was left with my own thoughts for a while and decided to call that rebooking number.
Your representative here was a bit more sympathetic and assured me that, yes, I would be guaranteed a seat on the 5 PM JFK flight and yes it would be leaving on time as there had been few delays. After ruminating on this, I decided to do it. I would get in seven to eight hours later than anticipated, go across the entire city, and lose dinner with Mom, but at least I’d be in California.
By this point it was 2:45 PM, so I rushed downstairs to attempt to reclaim my luggage at a time when I should have been halfway to California. The baggage office was closed. Seriously! On a busy day like that it was closed.
Whoops, there goes the anxiety again. I ran back upstairs to the ticketing agents. Still a mad house. Still difficult to get someone’s attention. They indicated that there was another baggage office on the other side of baggage claim hidden behind some plants.
“Ah, that makes sense,” I thought.
The line here was short compared to others, but there seems to be some kind of inverse law with lines because it still took ten minutes to get to the front. I told the baggage claim agent here my sob story and she indicated that my bag would come back through a big garage door in a few minutes. I was surprised when this turned out to be true, but seeing as it was now past 3 PM I only reflected upon that fact briefly.
Now was my attempt to get to JFK. Did a bus go between the airports? I wasn’t sure and didn’t see anything. While looking it up on my phone I decided to get in line for a taxi. It’s a more expensive option, but at least has more control built in than a bus. When I looked up from my Google brand internet search, I realized that the taxi stand line was at least 80 people long. And no taxis.
Seriously, not a single one. I noticed this at 3:15. About ten minutes later taxis show up and the line gets moving. By 3:35 I was at the front of the queue. Still anxious, though, as who knows what the afternoon rush hour’s going to be like and the most direct route between both airports is a major thoroughfare for millions of commuters.
Naturally as I get to the front of the line something goes wrong. This cab is stopped in the middle of the exit from the taxi stand. The driver’s standing with the rear door open talking to his passenger. The dispatcher is, of course, standing twenty feet away shouting and blowing his whistle instead of going over to see what the problem is. After about five minutes of this, the cab driver finally comes over to the dispatcher.
Apparently the fare doesn’t speak English. Any English. I hope the non-English speaker’s day went better than mine because the only directions he could give to the driver are “Brooklyn.” Brooklyn’s about 90 square miles, so that definitely would have been an expensive fare. I won’t get into the resolution of this one, nor the stupid things that same cabbie did after they figured it out, but it was now 3:50 and I just wanted to get to JFK and not miss another flight.
My cabbie was sympathetic. He also hit traffic on the way there and we were stopped for another ten minutes. At this point I almost got out of the car. I figured I could walk off into the woods and live out the rest of my life as a mountain man. Of course I was in New York city, making this impossible. Instead I waited it out and we were at JFK by 4:20. If the person reading this is into recreational marijuana use, you’ve probably laughed at that last sentence. I don’t partake myself, but more power to you if it keeps your life sane.
When I walked into JFK, I was greeted with more self-service kiosks. I knew what to do with them and they knew what to do with me. Give me an error and tell me to speak to an agent. Hrm. Well, there were actually plenty of those around at this airport and they clearly indicated another line to me.
While in line I noticed that everyone in front of me had a passport and was speaking in languages that probably used all kinds of accents and squiggly marks on their letters. San Francisco’s pretty diverse, but you don’t need a passport to get there. Did I just get to the International terminal?
No, a passing agent assured me. This was the correct line for San Francisco. I got to the front in short order and the gate agent here was very polite. She even directed me to a shorter security line and I made it to my gate with about 40 minutes to spare. I decided to have a beer.
The flight was uneventful and also joyless. The Delta I remember from 20 years ago certainly featured less dour flight attendants. Still, I was happy to be on my way.
After waiting a half hour for my luggage and another ten minutes for the air train, I made it to the rental car area. Thankfully they still had the car I’d reserved. Of course when the agent started trying to upsell me on various types of insurance and gas protection, I gave him a thumbnail sketch of the above, said I wasn’t trying to be rude, but would just like to get my car and get to see my Mom.
In the rain that took more than the expected hour and it was close to 1 AM when I finally walked into my Mom’s house.
Now a couple of weeks later it’s made an interesting story to tell, so at least I got something out of it. Still, though, the experience has made me completely rethink my relationship with Delta. When I think back over my travel with you in the last five years or so, none of it has been good. Recounting this story with friends and family has brought up other instances of the same with them.
At this point I’d rather sign on with Virgin America for my domestic travel and Porter Airlines for my travel to Canada. They’ve proven to me that they care about my custom and have done more over the last couple of years to inspire confidence than Delta has in the last five. I’ll have to pick moving target with other international flights, but I know I won’t be flying Delta to South America, Asia, Antarctica, or Africa.
Please cancel my SkyMiles account. If my miles can somehow be given to charity, please do so.