Delta Agents in Seattle Fired For Giving Out Upgrades, But They Say It Was Another Reason

Four Delta agents in Seattle were fired and were told it’s because they were giving out upgrades.

According to the lawsuit, the women were informed they “were suspended and ultimately terminated for allegedly offering unauthorized upgrades.” However, the women say it’s a standard practice among agents and claim they were the only ones fired.

“Offering free upgrades, especially on an oversold flight, is a common practice, but suddenly, it became a reason to be terminated, just for us, for Korean women,” Kim said.

“Other agents do it, on a daily basis,” Song said.

When flights are oversold in coach but have empty seats in business class, airlines pick out passengers to give ‘operational upgrades’ to. Some airlines will ;prioritize this based on elite status, but that’s not always the case.

And the most important thing is generally getting the flight out on time. Agents won’t always come onboard to find a passenger to move them up. They may just pick out whomever is convenient. That’s where the old ‘dress nicely’ canard comes in. Agents do have a certain amount of discretion under very limited circumstances to get as many passengers onto the plane as possible and to do it without delaying the flight.

Four years ago I wrote a primer on scoring these free operational upgrades. These are the upgrades that the ex-Delta employees are claiming were the pretense for their dismissals.

The women are suing, claiming that:

  • They were hired for their Korean language skills, but told not to speak Korean unless necessary while other foreign language-able agents werent’ given that instruction. Reportedly other agents complained about them speaking the language to each other.
  • They were being retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment, daily touching at the gate.

    The women were reportedly harassed multiple times by the same person while on the job. Yi told KIRO 7 she tried to “avoid touching” from the harasser “so when he came to the gate, I just moved out of sight. I didn’t want to deal with him touching, whispering.”

    “It was a daily thing,” Park said. She and Kim both reported the employee’s inappropriate behavior to their supervisor, but they say nothing was ever done.

Delta stands by their story and suggests is wasn’t really operational upgrades that led to the terminations,

Delta does not tolerate workplace discrimination or harassment of any kind. Such behavior runs counter to our core values of diversity and inclusion and our mission of connecting the world.

We take allegations of workplace harassment and discrimination very seriously and our investigations into allegations made by these former employees were found to be without merit. These former employees were unfortunately but appropriately terminated because the company determined they violated ticketing and fare rules. Delta is confident that these claims will ultimately be determined to be without merit.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Wasn’t there another termination suit against delta a few years ago in NY that was sexual harassment related?

  2. I believe the agents. Even in liberal Seattle, white people get especially triggered whenever people speak to each other in a language that isn’t English. Agents give out upgrades to anyone all the time. Somebody probably just didn’t like them and got them fired for some unrelated reason.

  3. Rule #1. HR is not for us. They are here to protect the company from the employees. Never report anything to HR or corporate offices unless directed to by our legal representation from the union or a lawyer we hired ourselves for protection.

    Rule #2. Avoid speaking a language other than English at work, even with customers. People feel threatened by this and will attack you.

    This is the culture we live in.

  4. Well put @SounderTID…so well put!

    Separately, those “1st class” seats seen in the top pic look awfully short of legroom!!!

    Had there not been the pair of wall mounted video screens one might’ve even wondered if this was a 2-class RJ instead of a mainline jet… (cue bigly eyerolls 😉 )

  5. Delta will need to prove their argument. My experience with their gate agents is consistently random enough to know that I have no expectation that they will accommodate any small convenience I may request. On one flight, my spouse detected the same vibe.
    These agents have a disparate treatment argument that will probably be a home run by itself.

  6. If you are working with 4 people who speak a second language and you don’t speak that language I can understand how the non foreign language co-worker would feel isolated if the four foreign language speakers constantly speak the second language in the work space. I can see that. I can see a rule saying speak English unless directly communicating with a Korean customer because when you speak English all the people in the shared workspace are participants, even passively with what is happening in the workspace.

    However there needs to be a clear company policy on this, if there is no existing policy then the women were not violating policy and naturally speaking to each other in Korean. Generally speaking the airline staff should communicate with each other in the language of the country where the business is situated because this is inclusive to all the employees sharing the wokspace. Thus in France with any operational issues we expect the gate agents to speak to us in English, but amongst themselves to resolve the operational issue in French. In Seattle the gate agents should speak Korean to customers who are Korean speaking but communicate with each other to resolve operations issues in English because Seattle is based in an English speaking country.

    If there is no company policy on this there should be. Gate agents do not work out of private offices, they work in a shared workspace and in that shared space everyone should speak with each other in the same language. Take this situation to the next level, a supervisor speaks Korean and part of her staff are Korean speakers so the Supervisor constantly speaks to the Korean speakers in Korean, but speaks to you in English. You report to the same supervisor. Are you going to feel included and valued or are you going to feel excluded?

    Now you run into the situation where people are just sharing their lives, “What did you have for dinner last night?” and are going to communicate in say Korean, however the non Korean co-workers are then excluded from normal workplace bonding conversations. Speaking a second language amongst just some members of the work team results in team dissolution, you then have two teams, the Korean speaking team and the English speaking team. What businesses want is one *cohesive team,* a shared language promotes and maintains team cohesion. Now when you are on break ppl can speak in whatever language they want, but once they are on the workfloor they should speak in the language of the country in which they are located.

    One thing I have observed is that some cultures are very much more clique-ish or to say it another way tribal, than others. Speaking a different language amoung some part of a members of a group reinforces that clique or shall we say tribal tendency. It is similar to muslim women who completely cover their face except for eye slits. We communicate non verbally as well as verbally, so if my face is uncovered and you can read my facial expressions but I can’t read your facial expressions because your face is covered, it is an imbalance. The Korean speaking gate agents do fully participate in all conversation of the other gate agents who are speaking in English because they speak both languages, but the English speaking gate agents are not able to participate in any conversation when Korean is spoken (I can’t see your face because of your veil.)

    I do think France’s law banning full face covering in public is the right balance. If you want to cover your hair or wear long sleeves and gloves, fine I can still see your non verbal expressions with your long sleeves and gloves on. I also cannot ID you should there be a situation where that is necessary if you have your face covered. I am not trying to derail the conversation, as I see both situations as the same. If I ever got a job in Saudi Arabia you better believe I am going to wear the full veil because that is the laws and the culture of that country.

  7. Stupid Delta fires only the Asians and expect people believe the b.s. reason?
    Should have mixed it up by firing some whites and blacks along with them.

  8. Having worked at a major airline for 22yrs we tried to upgrade our elites first but after all those were exhausted it became random but being fired for speaking in your native tongue with warnings goes a bit too far.

  9. Damn @olderwoman can babble and still make no sense. Anyways, unless you are a sky ho, a glorified bus driver, flight attendant or pilot, DL doesn’t give a rats ass about you. Ground crews, except mechanics, are the disposable agents in an airline. DL doesn’t give a rats ass about front line employees. You ever hear about front line agents getting these lucrative buyouts to not come to work? Hell no its always the bus drivers and drank ho’s. These 4 agents pissed someone in Seattle off and they were targeted for revenge from management. I speak from experience. Work for DL in Seattle years ago and shit hasn’t changed. DL sucks ass unless your a flight crew the they kiss and suck your ass and crap on everybody else.

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