Monday, March 16, 2009

Das Delta Travell

Next time you fly Delta Airlines, and you wonder why their tickets are so expensive, keep one fact in mind: Delta's not too bothered about whether its passengers get to their destinations. That's an important detail.

It was Friday the 13th and being the amoral Fortean and Libertarian that I am, I didn't think anything of my wife and I flying Florida. We had a connecting flight to catch in Atlanta, Georgia, but worried little about it because Atlanta was the home of CNN and where Dominique Wilkins once played professional basketball.

First thing that troubled me about Delta Airlines was their inept online booking system. The link in their email that would have allowed us to choose our seats online was broken. An airline that doesn't check its links is very likely to be recalcitrant and remiss in other areas, as well. Broken Web links turned out to be harbingers for further broken physical links and connections.

At the airport, the situation improved by only 50 percent. At the Delta counter self-check-in kiosk, my wife booked a seat for me, but was issued a "Seat Request" for herself. There were technical and philosophical and theological reasons for this, explained by a Delta desk worker who looked like Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Security wasn't up on this "Seat Request" nonsense and wouldn't recognize it as a boarding pass, so Delta's secret system remained cloaked in mystery as appeared to be the intent. A kindly Delta desk attendant ultimately came over to the security line with us to explain the teleological and existential import of the "Seat Request", and so my wife and I were then permitted to go through the routine indignities of security. The "Seat Request" was Delta's way of putting its passengers to work even at the gate where it was encumbent upon passengers to stand in yet another line to submit their names and "Seat Request"s. There's nothing better for business than making people feel uneasy and uncertain about whether they are going to receive the product or service for which they have already paid and shown up to enjoy.

Our flight was delayed because the plane was coming from Atlanta, then heading back there with us aboard. The delay was due to weather, so who the hell can argue with that? Not I. When the plane arrived, an hour late, the front-line Delta employees did a great job of clearing the plane and loading us onto it. The plane was a decrepit 757 outfitted with old leather seats that seemed designed to literally suck passengers' life essence out of them. When I finally stood up after our two-hour flight to Atlanta, I felt like my body was wrapped in a wet diaper. As we waited to deplane, the sound system assailed us with execrable light rock that was even more insidious, pernicious and homicide-inducing than "It's a Small World After All."

All told, we arrived an hour late for our connecting flight in Atlanta. Since ours was the last flight of the evening to Orlando, I didn't think it outrageous to hope the plane might've been held for us -- not just my wife and I, but the hundred others among us with the same destination. No one likes delays, but we had beared with ours at the start well enough and figured the folks in Atlanta wouldn't collectively devolve into a grand mal piss-shit-fit having to wait that length of time for us to arrive.

Where common sense, collectivism, the honor system and the brotherhood of man might have bridged our hour-late gap, in stepped Delta Airlines. They sent that Orlando-bound flight out of Atlanta right on time, stranding us in Atlanta airport.

At roughly 10:40 p.m., after a full day at work that began at 7 a.m., I had begun to lose my shit. I was of the mind, but lacked the resources, to immolate the universe at that time. That's when my wife stepped in, saintly pragmatist and 15-degree red belt husband-psychologist, that she is. She maneuvered her loutish, ape spouse through Atlanta airport, which was no easy feat -- Christ, metropolitan airports are veritable cities!

In the midst of my contankerous-anxiety-fog, I noticed an interesting trend among some Delta employees. The workers looking after the exponentially expanding lines of passengers who missed their flights deputized tired, frazzled passengers to pass along messages to other frazzled, dissolute passengers. We got into a line that looked like something seen outside of a Russian McDonald's in the 1980s, and were approached by a fellow passenger who said, "The lady at the counter wanted me to tell everybody that she won't help anyone who gets in line after that gentleman with the brown jacket." And there, about a dozen people ahead of us, stood a guy with a brown jacket -- a human, Delta-deputized buoy marker in the queue. So, on the advice of other passengers who'd been through this with Delta on previous occasions, we got to the main terminal and found where help might actually be sought. It wasn't hard to miss -- it was the line of a thousand people standing before a single counter person.

We made an attempt to seek help at another Delta desk, but that Delta counter employee had deputized an exhausted passenger to break the bad news to the incoming rabble, that no help could be had at that Delta desk. The comedy of the situation was accentuated as the Delta employee silently stood about five feet away from the deputized passenger as the passenger offered the explanation. The Delta employee did none of her own talking. What a union they must have!

When we reached the Bataan Death Line in the Delta den in Atlanta Airport where help could be sought, my wife and I finally saw why Delta flights are so expensive: hundreds of Delta toiletry bags were handed out to deflated, disoriented, disgruntled passengers, as well as hotel and food vouchers. Clearly, Delta was so used to fucking up people's flights that it has Plan B down pat. Had it kept our connecting plane at the gate for one more hour, they could have saved thousands upon thousands of dollars.

Ultimately, my wife and I made it to a hotel in Atlanta. Jerry, the shuttle bus driver, was an oasis of good humor and humanity, and a font of useful information amid a night of confusion and tight-lipped corporate ineptitude. Once at the hotel, a young waiter named Swift did justice to his proud name by serving our late, late dinner speedily and proficiently. He was definitely cut from the same blessed cloth as Jerry -- oozing good nature and hospitality, a true ambassador amid a night of pilons.

The next morning, we made our flight to Florida. That plane was much more comfortable than the 757 period piece of the previous day. The flight attendants were efficient and professional. I never stop feeling sorry for those glossy, disappointed beauty queens, though, who look with disenchantment upon each passenger, almost audibly thinking, My job is to minister to fart-filled Philistines. But they treated us with dignity.

But ole Delta's corporate motto should be: "Delta: If we feel like it" or "Delta: Ya Burn!"

Talking to people afterward, I learned that Delta is renown for "bumping" passengers. My brother had had an outrageous experience in New York about a year ago where he and his pregnant wife -- both holding valid, paid-for Delta tickets for that flight -- were treated like syphillitic, TB-ridden stowaways. They were unceremoniously bumped, treated as though they should have felt honored to be bumped and then put through a maddening, months-long gauntlet of phone calls and bureaucracy to receive any compensation.

I appreciated the SkyTeam T-shirt that came in my Delta toiletry bag. I wore it to the airport the next day figuring it would entitle me to priority seating, free drinks, an autograph session with whatever minor celebrity was on the flight, and possibly vouchers for Sky Mall items, such as a ping-pong table and rackets for cats, K-9 harmonica, or a walnut juicer. None of this came to pass, but Delta did deign to fly me to Florida, for which I was extremely grateful.

One thing I would suggest to all airports where Delta lands -- they should have glassed-in doorways containing stand-up comedians, and stenciled across the pane: BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. The comedian could then step out and entertain and get angry passengers back into a better frame of mind. Or, at least, the comedians would be there for everyone to bludgeon to death with hand luggage and fire extinguishers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Delta has one of the worst plane maintenance records, too. I heard a story when I was a travel agent of a family whose plane almost crashed, and yet Delta wouldn't pay for another means of transport so the family could get to home because they were too terrified to fly again.

American is even worse. Believe it or not. They're called Sky Nazis in the travel business world.