What’s Wrong With Customer Service: Airlines Make Two Promises, But Only Honor One

Delta is making a huge investment in the Los Angeles market. Just yesterday Skift carried a piece “Delta and American Air Are Fighting to Fly Hollywood’s Jetsetters.”

They’ve just completed their quarter billion dollar renovation at LAX.

New York – Los Angeles is the nation’s premier, highest revenue route and airlines compete with flat beds and convenience on the ground. Delta has billboards all over New York promoting the quality of their inflight offering.

That’s the promise.

I got an email early this morning from a movie investor who lives in New York and works mostly in Los Angeles and is a Delta SkyMiles Diamond member flying predominantly their premium transcon flights between the two cities.

My correspondent frequently buys first class, especially on redeye flights back to the East Coast in order to sleep. The premium lie flat seat is a must, and commands a price premium they’re positioned to pay.

What prompted the email was boarding the plane to find this seat:

It’s obviously not what they paid for.

Here’s what a walk up fare on this flight runs.

When contacted, Delta offered compensation in the form of a $100 voucher or 10,000 SkyMiles. That only served to re-infuriate the customer who didn’t get the bed to sleep in that they had been promised and paid for.

My point isn’t about Delta. It’s merely illustrative of a point about the state of airlines and customer service, and how they think about their business and passengers.

We all (or most of us) know that ‘seats and aircraft aren’t guaranteed.’

You may think you’re getting American’s new business class product overseas but there are still planes flying around with their old product that haven’t been refurbished yet. You might get one on certain routes. Seats and aircraft aren’t guaranteed.

Only they don’t advertise that way. Ads focus on the great, private suites that are wonderful for a night’s rest. Ads don’t focus on the flat bed seat you may get if you’re lucky but please don’t buy on the assumption that you will.

There’s a conflict inherent in airline marketing.

  1. On the one hand a belief that all a ticket buys is transportation from point A to point B

  2. On the other hand a promise of comfort and service that is meant to get you to choose one carrier over the other.

When things go wrong, all too often airlines resort to number one.

In fairness that’s not always so. Early last year British Airways was proactively issuing compensation in the form of 50,000 miles to first class passengers who found themselves flying BA’s old first class product. They at least didn’t wait for customers to have to spend time calling in, and offered something more substantive.

It’s up to the airline and its culture to choose how to handle their own failure to deliver a product as promised. You pretty much can’t sue an airline over operational decisions — only for explicitly violating their contract of carriage, which they write themselves to allow almost no room for judgments.

And you can only hope that an airline which consistently fails to deliver will develop a hit to their reputation such that they’ll feel financial consequences for those failures — and either shape up or exit the market.

However too many consumers lump all the airlines together as being ‘all the same’. And when a passenger gets angry at an airline, one of the easiest things they can do to express their displeasure is cancel that airline’s co-brand credit card… taking business from the bank more directly than from the airline they’re seeking to extract satisfaction from.

How often are passengers not informed of problems until the last moment, or given full information on the details behind a delay? I generally get respect from American Airlines… in the lounges at Austin and Washington National.

When US Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson passengers were all granted top tier elite status. For one year.

Though many complaints about airlines do seem misguided, I also think there’s a misguided belief inside the airlines about what is owed when they failed to deliver what they’ve promised. Perhaps that’s because of airlines’ relentless focus on safety and so we should cut them some slack. But they’re the ones who market more than safe, reliable transportation.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Unfortunately, this seems to be a common complaint on that route for Delta. Anecdotal evidence would seem to be that AA is better with aircraft subs on JFK-LAX than Delta, presumably since AA has a dedicated subfleet whereas Delta flies a mix of internationally configured 757s and 767s on that route.

  2. Delta flies haggard run down antiques in the air and has a horrible record historically with customer service.They aren’t transparent with passenger rights either
    When will folks wake up not to fly them?
    Did I mention they are criminal at running a FF program?
    The only thing positive in decades has been their late introduction of one way awards
    Not that you’ll find them except at extortion prices

  3. If that had been me I would have refused to take the flight and demanded a full refund. Lots of choices from LAX-JFK with lay flat seats. I had that happen once on a United LAX-LHR 777. The flight was advertised as having the new business class seats and when we boarded it turned out that the aircraft had not been retrofitted. Even though I was inconvenienced by having to take a different flight with lay flat seats why should I fly close to 12 hours and arrive to work feeling miserable when I was expecting to sleep en-route to London to be ready to work the next morning. I wasn’t going to do it and I also felt strongly that the only way to make a statement to the airlines is to hold them accountable with $$$$. When they lose a very expensive fare at the last minute they tend to take notice. Offering a top tier flyer $100 is just laughable. It just makes another statement about how incompetent Delta’s management is.

  4. I think the most galling part is the pathetic compensation offered. Surely delta has the equivalent of an eagle score that would tip off customer service to the fact that they have a high-mileage, high revenue customer. If this is how they treat a premium customer, I’d hate to see the reply to a casual flier who experienced the same.

  5. The contract of carriage is for transportation from point A to point B. The seat is not the product. The class of service matters to the extent that you’re entitled to a refund if you don’t get to sit in that cabin. But a lay flat seat is nothing more or less than a marketing ploy to begin with, and it surprises me that in 2015, serious people would set the expectation that they’re entitled to a lay-flat seat because it said so on the booking tool they used. Equipment changes are old news, and a reality of the business.

    What surprises me most about this article is the cost of a walk-up F class ticket from LAX to NYC. 2236? That’s less than it cost in the 90s. For walk-up Y class.

  6. Is there any resolution to this story? Did you contact Delta for the passenger? Would be keen to know if there is any follow up and how this plays out. Seems they’d be fools not to take care of this guy given his spend

  7. When you have a lawyer run a company this is what happens. Squeeze blood from every person. Only morons fly delta at full date l fare.

  8. If I was that flyer, I would just dispute the charge with the credit card company. Not “Guaranteed” aircraft type or not, delivering a product severely different than advertised is unacceptable and I wouldn’t pay. I’m guessing the credit card company would at least go to bat for a high roller.

  9. GREAT post. (Obviously, too wordy.) Your soap box is a two way street. The TSA posts are tired. But, calling out airlines and hotels for bad behavior is great. Thank you.

  10. The movie investor should start flying Jetblue Mint JFK-LAX, at least he would be guaranteed alie flat seat.

    Poor job, Delta.

  11. There are billboards around LAX that explicitly state that flat-bed seats are available on all flights between LAX and JFK. Isn’t this false advertising?

  12. Had problem with recent trip (not with Delta) but with another airline but with Business class award to Europe to DFW & return. We are are trying to enjoy our Golden years & redeem awards but feel that perhaps our saving of awards is meaningless.
    However, we are fairly intelligent. Any advice will be put to good use, & I always use your good advice.

  13. Obvious question of 2015.

    My first comment in a series of comments meant to model after the ‘dramatic’ scene transitions of our subject matter wonk.

    In the internet age, where high speed fiber exists and is readily available, and where movies often shoot on location throughout the globe, and where luxury accommodations are found throughout the known world, why on god’s green earth do we constantly have to hear the whining of some NY to LA denizen?

    Goes right in the who cares pile when I hear the route.

  14. @Lushlife lol standard brainwashed apologist response. This is the only business where the vendor absolves themselves of the need to provide the product that is advertised. Plenty of “serious people” have spent their whole lives getting what they paid for and some even have more important things to do than root around in airline CoCs.

  15. I cannot believe they threw that oldass 757 on JFK-LAX. That’s one you’d expect to see flying ATL-MCO

  16. AA tried to do this to us early this year. We had booked a FC award DFW to FRA on a 777 for this Summer. Some 5 months in advance they changed the plane on that route to a older hard product 767, with only J, and 6 across angled flat seats instead of 4 across lie flat in FC.

    They didn’t bother to let us know. They just changed our preselected seats to seats in the same row, but now in J. They left our reservation in “MY Trips” on the website saying FC, even though the plane did not have a FC !

    I only noticed this because we had been seated in row 2 DG, and the seat numbers on the reservation changed, since the middle row on the 767 was 3 across. .

    I’d literally spent months searching every day, waiting for a genuine FC TATL Saver award to open up, and had only booked that flight and that date based on it being the only 777 FC award they would give me for the entire Summer. When I discovered this on my own, and called AAdvantage (sic), the CSR said nothing else was available to book as a Saver award, and only offered to refund the excess mileage of a FC award over that of a J award. I demanded to speak to a Supervisor, and requested to be moved to the DFW to CDG flight that was now using the 777 I had originally booked. I don’t know if being Lifetime Gold helped or not, but we were moved to the CDG flight.

    The worst part of all of this is that I had watched online as this flight filled up some 8 months in advance, and am reasonably certain the entire “FC” cabin had been filled with people using Saver awards. Since AA did not contact me, I’m guessing the other 14 people who booked their FC awards for this flight only found out when they boarded the flight, and found themselves in outdated J instead of the new FC they had booked.

    I of course can’t prove it, but my guess is AA knew, when they filled all 16 FC seats with Saver award passengers, that they were going to do the equipment switch, and purposely tricked us into booking this flight, knowing we were going to end up in outdated J. 🙁

  17. He probably bought a $1200RT JetBlue match fare anyway…

    ‘sometimes’ buys first class is a giveaway walkup isn’t what he’s paying

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