When you get on a Delta Airlines flight that actually manages to push back from the gate, an annoying little video comes on featuring Richard Anderson, President and CEO of Delta. He says that Delta’s top priority is maintaining strong positive relationships with its customers, and that is what makes “the Delta difference.”
Actually, Dick, I don’t think so. At least that was far from my experience on Delta Flight 2303 from New York’s JFK Airport to Portland, Oregon on Saturday, March 21, 2015. Nor was it the experience of the 300 or so other passengers, all of whom are bent on ganging up on Delta and insisting they mend the damaged relationships that ensued that afternoon, evening, dead of night, and on into the following day.
The irony is that, although we all suffered through a broken relationship with our airline, many of us built new relationships with one another that gave evidence of the human decency, compassion, and humor that always gives me hope.
Fresh from a delightful but busy visit with my daughter and grandsons, and looking forward to sleeping in my own bed that night, I arrived at JFK at about 5 p.m. for my 7 p.m. flight only to learn, when I reached the gate, that it was now scheduled to leave at 8 p.m. Oh well, it’s true that I had left the sound on my phone turned off, and hadn’t received their text notifying me of the delay. My bad. Our plane was probably late due to the previous day’s snowfall, which can often cause a chain reaction of delay throughout the entire airline system for several days thereafter.
I settled down with The Knitting Project From Hell and waited. At about 7:35, the gate agent announced that our aircraft would soon be arriving from San Juan, and as soon as it was serviced we’d board and be out of there. Okay, a slightly late departure, no big deal.
At about 8:00 p.m. we began boarding the plane, expecting a late takeoff. At about 8:30, when boarding was completed, the captain announced that takeoff would be delayed because they couldn’t arm the safety chute on the rear door. He said these problems can usually be handled quickly and we should soon be on our way. Self-important looking mechanics started hurrying up and down the center aisle, not making eye contact with us.
At about 9:15 p.m., after several more announcements from the captain which did not give further information (except to say that the repair was not going well), we were told that the door needed to be removed from the plane, and it couldn’t be done with passengers on board. He said we needed to debark the aircraft and wait at the gate while it was taken for repair. He also told us that another aircraft might need to be found, and that our flight crew could only work for another hour and 10 minutes, so it was possible that we would be flying with a different crew once it was assembled.
At this point, things really started heading south. From 9:15 p.m. until approximately 2:30 a.m., at least four gate changes occurred, keeping us moving around from one gate to another in Terminal 2. The flight was announced for departure at least four times: 10:40 p.m., 1:40 a.m., 2:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. Each time a new departure time was determined, a gate agent spoke from the corner of the L-shaped concourse without a microphone, assuring us that it really would be leaving shortly. Unless one was watching carefully, one would have no idea that he was speaking; many passengers were not kept aware of the changes, as we were scattered all over the concourse. Families with young children and babies were understandably reluctant to keep moving their sleeping children around for all these gate changes, so they were relying on those of us who were paying attention to keep them apprised. Somewhere in there, maybe around midnight, we began to realize that we’d better start taking care of each other, because Delta was showing little interest in taking care of us.
As we moved around from gate to gate and back again, we began to seek new seat partners, inquiring where they were headed and where they had been. A woman from Belfast, who was remarkably cheerful under the circumstances, told me she’d already been awake for 25 hours because her plane was delayed leaving Ireland due to New York’s snow storm the previous day. I kept an eye on my onboard seatmate, a Chinese woman studying at Portland State, who was concerned that her 80-year old landlady would be worried about her; she was also concerned that the teacher who was supposed to meet her plane had young children and really shouldn’t be bothered to come to the airport in the middle of the night. I assured her that my husband and I would take her home, and she bought me a drink to show her gratitude.
Another woman started interviewing her fellow passengers on her iPhone video, collecting testimonies about the terrible treatment Delta was giving us. I didn’t even bother to put on lipstick, figuring that the more haggard we looked, the more convincing our story would be.
The night dragged on. No more flights were leaving, and the entire concourse was ours. A few of the shops stayed open to sell us magazines and bottled water, and the cleaning crew began vacuuming the carpet around the bodies already stretched out on the floor. (Do they put metal arms on all the seats to discourage people from lying down?) Bright lights were glaring, canned muzak was driving us crazy, the night shift crews were talking and laughing loudly, and the bathrooms were filthy beyond belief.
We were still expecting a 3:30 a.m. departure, although one courageous gate agent admitted that there still was not a full crew to be found, and that the time of that departure was only a guess from the control tower.
Finally, at 2:30 a.m., the announcement was made that the flight would depart at 11 a.m. on Sunday, March 22 and vouchers for cabs and hotel rooms would be given to anyone who wished. Immediately, a long line formed at the Customer Service podium — a line which moved extremely slowly as the agents attempted to deal with the complex travel arrangements of several hundred passengers, many of whom insisted on being re-booked on different flights. Nearing the front of the line an hour later, I learned from another passenger that there were no more hotel rooms available near JFK, and that those wishing a hotel room were being told that we could take cabs to hotels near LaGuardia airport. They also said that we should allow at least an hour to get from LaGuardia back to JFK the next morning, and that we would need to go through security again.
By now I was unwilling to believe what any Delta employee was saying. They had already been leading us on for five hours, assuring us that the flight would be departing soon… over and over again. Leaving the airport felt risky; why should we believe that we could get from LaGuardia back to JFK in time for the 11 a.m. flight? And besides, by the time we got to a hotel there would be little time left for sleeping before we’d have to get up and find a cab to return us to JFK. Why bother?
A cohort of Portlanders converged on the man who seemed to be the supervisor, saying that we didn’t plan to leave the airport and could he please open up the Sky Club (whose floor-to-ceiling windows looked down on our concourse from the second story) so that we could find a quiet place to sleep? “Oh no, I can’t do that. That’s not within my jurisdiction. I don’t have the authority to do that. No, you will just have to make yourselves comfortable here. The Sky Club is closed anyway. It won’t re-open until 5 a.m. I’m sorry.” (How sorry are you to be going home to your own bed now, knowing that some other Delta employee will be handling our flight in the morning while you drink tea and read the paper?)
“The Delta Difference” at that point seemed to be that no one gave a rip about how we were feeling and the discomfort we were enduring. Apparently no one was thinking, “Hmmm, these people are undergoing something really unpleasant; what can we do to make things easier for them?” No one was wondering how he might go out of his way to try making something happen for us that could have made the next seven hours even slightly more pleasant.
Instead, we endured the next hour making small talk and passing the time until the Sky Club opened and we could plead our case with someone who might be a little more sympathetic. At 5 a.m. this sorry-looking group of seven or eight travelers dragged ourselves upstairs and pleaded with the Sky Club ladies (all perky and professional in their immaculate makeup and perfect uniforms — clearly they had slept in a bed the night before) to do us the courtesy of letting us get a little sleep or maybe even — gasp! — take a shower. Of course… but it would cost each of us $50 unless we had an American Express Platinum card, in which case it would cost only $29. No one had an American Express Platinum card. But by now we had already been scheming against Delta Airlines and listing our grievances to convince ourselves that they owed us something, so we each forked over the $50, expecting to be reimbursed, and entered Paradise.
It was clean. It was quiet. It was empty, except for our scruffy band. The chairs were comfortable. The rest rooms were immaculate, and there were fluffy, fresh towels in the shower rooms. Several of us moved as far away from the entrance as possible and collapsed into sleep, making do with a combination of chairs and footstools to approximate a bed.
I found an upholstered chair whose high back came around to surround the sitter in a cocoon of quiet, and slumped down for 90 minutes of restless sleep.
Starting at about 7, feeling slightly refreshed after a bit of sleep in a quiet place, we began to gather for coffee and the Sky Club’s generous breakfast buffet. As we munched on bagels, granola, fresh fruit, and yoghurt, we picked up the stories we had abandoned a few hours earlier.
Mike had recently lost his IT job with a large Portland company, but he was very cheerful because a week after his layoff he received a call from “America’s Got Talent” asking him to fly to New York for a taping. He was now on his way home, looking forward to the courtship of the several headhunters who were wooing him and to the May airing of his “AGT” segment, about which he was constrained to secrecy. (But… remember to look for the talking broccoli.)
Angela’s husband and Mike knew some of the same people, since their companies work cooperatively, and Angela’s husband’s company has several positions open. Judy (the other one) lives in Beaverton, where the men’s companies are located. Kendra was collecting our e-mail addresses so we could compare notes on the responses we expected from Delta, in case we chose to press a further attack. After a refreshing shower, Kara let down her beautiful wavy hair and smiled like the happy person she obviously is.
Later, down at the gate, we compared notes with fellow travelers who had remained downstairs or taken the chance on a hotel room. The woman from Belfast managed to sleep on the floor “in a cozy corner,” while the man she had befriended told me “Yes, we made a campfire and sang Kumbaya.” The two dogs on the flight sniffed each other warily, and the babies were quiet. Delta sprang for “breakfast,” which consisted of hamburger buns containing scrambled eggs (no, thanks), and we all applauded when a flight crew showed up.
Because many travelers from the day before had rebooked, there were 66 empty seats on the plane, so we were able to spread out a bit and extend our knees another few inches. (Delta is notorious for squeezing its passengers into tiny seats with ZERO leg room.) Partway through the lengthy flight (5 hours and 45 minutes), the movie/TV/music system crashed, and a nice young flight attendant (this was only his second flight) offered me a $50 voucher because it couldn’t be restored. He asked what had happened to the flight yesterday, and when I told him that they were never able to put together a crew, he mused “Hmmm, I was on standby, and they never called me.”
If only. If only they had called him, we might have gotten home sooner. If only they had abandoned the flight when we deplaned at 9:30, announced its resumption at 11 a.m. the next day, and given us vouchers then instead of leading us on and repeatedly lying to us for the next five hours. I would have gone back to my daughter’s, slept in a bed, and had the sweet experience of more hugs and kisses from my grandsons the next morning.
If only the Delta difference made a difference.