I'm not generally the person who makes a federal case out of delayed flights and travel troubles - this is the cost for modern airline travel. But last weekend, I flew back from New York on a flight that was severely delayed. And the fun didn't end there. This is the letter I wrote to the airline, submitted via their customer service form for Comments or Complaints - name of airline redacted for now - with a few literary flourishes added for my discerning blog readers. - EK
Dear Major Airline,
Look, I get it. I understand that flights get delayed, that equipment malfunctions and needs to be fixed. And just to be clear, I want you to fix the equipment malfunctions, and if it even remotely looks like it can’t be fixed, I also definitely want you to switch to an airplane that actually works. I’m even willing to wait until there’s a plane that flies properly.
So when I write to you about Flight # R5-D4*, which had been scheduled to depart at 9pm on Sunday July 28, I’m not writing about the delay of 45 minutes, which turned into 2 hours, which turned into 3 before any of us stopped counting. I’m not writing about waiting in the airport, or the crew’s behavior up to that point – staff members were apologetic and responsive, giving us $25 vouchers for shopping to ease the discomfort of delay, and some people received meal vouchers too (I had already eaten on my own dime, so I didn’t track down those meal vouchers). The trouble started once we were loaded onto the smaller plane.
After we boarded, someone realized there wouldn’t be enough seats on a smaller plane -why this only happened after our full flight from the bigger plane boarded the smaller plane, I just don't know - and the flight crew asked for volunteers to deplane. I really, really wanted to get home as soon as possible, and wasn’t inclined to volunteer for deplaning, until they announced the benefits package: a first-class seat on the first flight out in the morning at 7am, an overnight hotel stay with transfers to and from the airport, as well as 600 airline credit dollars, good on flights anywhere with the airline. If I took the 7am, I could fly in first class, a kind of comfort only dreamed of, be at work at 11, and have “earned” some money toward a vacation or family reunion at a future date.
I rang for a flight attendant: “Do you guys still need volunteers?”
“I think so,” she said, “go to the front to ask them directly before you get your bags.”
Following instructions, I walked to the front of the plane, asked them, they said, “Yes, we need you, go get your bags and come back.” So I did, walking back to the back of the plane quickly, grabbing my stuff as the flight attendants had instructed me, and exiting the plane at the front.
At the airplane door, I reported to claim the first-class seat I’d been offered, only to be told by the agent that there were no first-class or business seats on the 7am flight, only coach. (The reason I stepped off the plane, if you recall, was the promise of flying back to LA in first class.) “What about the 9am?” I asked. Only coach, he responded. Fine, I agreed. I’d take an aisle seat in coach on the 7am. No aisle seats were available, only middles, he told me. A nervous flier to begin with, I couldn’t face flying in the cramped middle seat. I sighed. So much for getting to work at a reasonable delay. “What about the noon flight?” The noon had first class seats available, so I was booked onto that. Seat 2D. It wasn’t what I’d been promised, but it would do. I'd be able to get some sleep tonight, and relax and work on the plane in the morning.
I walked the long gangway back up to the terminal gate, and when I arrived, a gate agent glared at me and sneered, “What are you doing here?”
“I gave up my seat and was booked onto another flight tomorrow,” I said.
“Why are they still sending people up here?” she barked. I understood that it was a frustrating situation, and that it was around midnight at this point, but her frustration was now squarely centered on me.
“I have no idea, but I was told that you needed volunteers, so I volunteered, and was rebooked onto a noon tomorrow,” I said.
Then she took my ticket, and threw it away. “You’re going back onto that plane,” she said. “They shouldn’t have kept on sending people up here.”
“Well, they did,” I said. “I gave up my seat a while ago, and was booked onto a flight tomorrow. I’m not going back on the plane. I’m tired and I’m going to the hotel to go to sleep.”
“You’re going back on the plane.”
“This is not acceptable,” I said.
“Fine. Take this drink ticket.” Into my hand she had thrust a card the size of a business card entitling me to a free drink.
“I don’t want a drink ticket.”
“Fine. Take two.” She shoved a second card at me.
“I don’t drink on airplanes. It makes me sick.” (If you've flown with me, you know this is true.)
“Just use it for snacks, then. You have to go back on the plane. We can’t fly with that seat empty.” (Because as we all know, a plane NEVER flies with 32E empty. </sarcasmfont>)
A guy at the counter pipes up, “I’ll take the seat! I need to get out of here tonight.”
“You don’t have a ticket, you’re not going on the plane,” the gate agent said to him.
“Look, what I don’t understand is that you needed me as a volunteer five minutes ago and now you don’t. What changed?”
“There was a couple that was traveling together, so we gave them priority. You’re single, and because you’re alone, you need to get back on the plane.” (She might have said, “because you’re traveling alone,” but it was late, and – as a former singles columnist – this is the language I remember.)
After nearly three hours of delay, I didn’t want to be the person who held up the plane, so I picked up my stuff, and with one last line from me about the treatment being unacceptable, I returned to the plane, promising that they’d be getting a letter from me. The gate agent who had booked me followed me out, and gave me a consolation prize - a $100 voucher for credit toward a future flight, which forces me to spend more money on this airline before I can claim it, something I am not inclined to do based on this experience.
- I was offered a specific package of benefits to convince me to deplane, and once I deplaned, that package (first flight out in the morning, first-class) was withdrawn for both morning flights.
- After I accepted the second choice deal (first class, but on a flight 5 hours later than promised) and climbed back up the gangway, I was greeted with inappropriate and unacceptable attitude from the gate agent.
- I was told that I had no choice but to get back on the plane because they couldn’t fly with an empty seat.
- I was treated rudely throughout the process.
- I agreed to return to the plane rather than to further delay the plane after a three-hour delay.
- Aside from the gate agent at the door to the airplane who had made “the mistake” of booking me onto another flight after I deplaned, no one from the airline expressed any apologies for anything, not even for the truly appalling behavior of the gate agent inside the terminal.
When I relayed this story to others, they asked me if I had taken the names of the people who had told me to step off the plane, or the person who had verbally abused me at the gate. I hadn’t: I was extremely tired, and it didn’t occur to me that a company like this one would dangle one offer and substitute another, or that a gate agent would take her frustration out on me. I fly often between New York and L.A., and as airlines usually note, we all have a choice in air travel. Based on this experience, the airline has proven itself untrustworthy and I am extremely unlikely to choose this airline in the future.
It would help as a gesture of goodwill if you would follow through on the original promise - a first-class, transcontinental ticket on a future flight and 600 airline credit dollars – or at least credit me for the cost of the flight that the airline botched so badly. It has been suggested to me that I send this letter to the head of customer service and the president of the company, but I thought I'd try this channel first.
Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.
*In the original post, I referred to this flight as TK-421, which was an inside joke for Star Wars fans, but which apparently led some readers to believe the errant airline was Turkish Airlines, which - of course - on a domestic flight JFK-LAX, it was not. You'll see if you follow the above link, that TK-421 famously left his post to check on some equipment on the Millennium Falcon, at which point he and his co-guard (TK-422, if I'm not mistaken) were attacked by Luke and Han who donned their uniforms to save Princess Leia. I have now changed this fake flight designation to R5-D4, a malfunctioning little red droid with a bad motivator, which is not entirely inappropriate, given my experience. Are we okay now, internet people?