If it were not for an understanding supervisor, this post would be a rant about Delta Air Lines and its deceptive reservation policies. Thanks to the supervisor, I understand Delta’s duplicity, and I appreciate its willingness to make things right. Unlike United and some other competitors, Delta isn’t devoid of humanity.

My Delta saga began with my online check-in for a 12:30 pm flight from Detroit to Los Angeles on Easter Sunday. I have a condition that requires me to sit in an aisle seat, and I incurred considerable extra costs to guarantee one. I could have saved money booking my flight on Chase Sapphire’s travel site if I was willing to let Delta assign me a seat; instead I paid more booking on Delta’s website and then swallowed nearly $200 in additional charges to secure my preselected “Preferred” round-trip aisle seats.

When I checked in online on Saturday, I caught that Delta had switched me to a window seat. I called customer service to complain, but the agent who took my call reminded me of a Citibank customer service rep Roseanne Barr parodied in one of my favorite SNL skits. I asked to speak to a supervisor.

A woman whose name I regretfully didn’t catch promptly came on the line and her manner of engagement was immediately calming.  She let me vent my anger and didn’t take offense at all the insults I hurled at Delta, including accusations of fraud. When I was done, the supervisor addressed my issues one-by-one.

She started with the good news. It turns out that if someone has a legitimate condition requiring an aisle seat, Delta doesn’t charge extra for it. The supervisor said she’d refund the $200 I paid for the aisle seats for both legs of my trip.

As for the seat change, Delta switched the type of aircraft scheduled for my flight and the airline’s computers had to reassign all the confirmed seats. In Delta’s view, my window seat was comparable to an aisle seat.

You see, what makes a Delta seat “Preferred” is that its Gold and Medallion frequent flyer members are allowed to book the more desirable (or least awful) back-of-the-plane window and aisle seats without paying extra for the privilege. As for as Delta’s concerned, all the back-of-the-plane aisle and window seats are equally “Preferred,” so in their eyes I still got what I paid extra for.

When I noted that Delta confirmed seat 18C with my receipt and therefore I had a reasonable expectation that I’d be sitting there, or at least a comparable aisle seat, the supervisor explained that a confirmed seat is not a guaranteed seat. She said there were no window or aisle seats available on my scheduled flight and that Delta can’t reassign already assigned seats. (Hmm, I thought, isn’t this why we’re having this conversation?)

The supervisor conceded Delta’s policy is “confusing.” To her credit, she resisted reading me Delta’s legal fine print on its confirmation emails, which allows the airline to do pretty much what it wants. Buried on the bottom is a section called “Conditions of Carriage,” which states Delta’s right to “change terms” of the contract.

The supervisor found me an alternative flight with a still available aisle seat on a holiday weekend.  While I resented my forced change in plans, I reflected on my conversation after hanging up.

I was fortunate that eight of Delta’s customer support centers are located in the U.S., and I was routed to one in Salt Lake City. I swore off United years ago, but my last dealings with that airline involved waiting 30 minutes to talk to an overseas customer support agent who was unfamiliar with JFK and didn’t know that New York has three area airports. My wait to connect to the Delta rep was less than three minutes, and the airline impressively lets you zero out if you want a live person to speak with from the get-go.

The supervisor voluntarily refunded my money, even for the leg of my trip where Delta honored its confirmation. She spoke to me for nearly an hour, despite the fact I’ve lost my Gold status and cancelled my Delta credit card. Most of my flights are cross-country; I stopped flying Delta regularly years ago when it stopped upgrading frequent flyers to business class on SFO and LAX flights to JFK. Call me a prima donna, but Business Class is my “Preferred” seating location.

The supervisor was a caring person who took great pride working for Delta. It takes considerable resources to find and train someone of this caliber and dedication. And it’s not the first time I’ve encountered a Delta employee who thinks generating good PR is a company-wide responsibility.  I’m not condoning Delta’s deceptive reservation policies, but I’m sympathetic to them.  

Delta is a publicly-traded company and is benchmarked against United, American, and others. The flying public doesn’t reward airlines for being ethical or fair. If United undercuts Delta for as little as $10, they will get the business, despite their practice of beating up passengers, suffocating dogs, and hurling racial epitaphs. When consumers view a company’s product as a commodity they value solely on price, the results aren’t pretty.   

United’s stock was up 24 percent last year, while Delta’s declined 11 percent. If Delta’s management doesn’t squeeze its revenue passenger miles to the max, they will be tossed out by a Grim Reaper activist like Carl Icahn who will slash and burn the company until it is sold or fails. Just ask former employees of TWA.

I’m going to keep flying Delta with the expectation they will find new ways to nickel and dime passengers. It’s just a matter of time before they impose a “resort” fee and bundle the lavatory, the slow internet service, and free movies they now offer. Here’s a “Preferred” perk I’d be willing to pay: Having all my calls automatically routed to Delta’s heroic supervisor in Salt Lake City.

Addendum: Just before posting this commentary, I received an email from Delta saying that only the extra charge for my aisle seat on the L.A.-to-Detroit leg of my trip was refunded.  It took a couple of calls, but a representative graciously issued the round-trip seat refund I was promised. Regretfully, the hold time was over 30 minutes.

Given the honesty and professionalism of the supervisor who promised me the round-trip refund, I’m going to assume the initial partial refund was a technical error.

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