Dear Mr. Delta

UPDATE: I sent a slightly revised version of the letter below to Delta’s complaint line the evening of May 16 and received a very gracious and responsive reply early the next morning. (I’d originally written this complaint primarily for the amusement of my blog’s readership, and only later decided to send it directly to Delta.) I’ve appended Delta’s response and my reply to it at the end of this post.

Dear Mr. Delta:

Ten days ago, as I boarded one of your airplanes in San Francisco for a flight to Detroit (flight 745 on May 10) – where I was headed en route to a visit with my daughter and her boys in Ann Arbor – a flight attendant greeted my fellow passengers and me with the news that, thanks to a malfunction in the plane’s water system, it would not be possible to serve coffee or tea while we were airborne.

Oh – and by the way, there wouldn’t be any water in the lavatories either. Which was a shame because, as I understand it, a lavatory is literally a place where you can wash up after, for instance, relieving yourself. Without water, it would seem washing up might be a bit difficult, and bladder relief might therefore prove a tad less relieving than usual. (To your credit, however, the lavatories were well stocked with moist towelettes.)

This announcement was the second unwelcome element in the boarding process, the first being that the boarding itself was taking place after an unexplained half hour’s delay.

Some time after everyone was seated, a flight attendant got on the public address system, apologized for the delay, and told us candidly that it was not possible to say how long the delay would continue because … we had no pilot. The pilot who had been scheduled to fly that morning had called in sick the night before, she said, and it had proven difficult to find a replacement on short notice. The pilot who had finally been found had yet to arrive.

After sitting there for some time, we were all advised to disembark so we could be more comfortable in the airport terminal. Passengers with onward connections were advised to see the gate agent for rebooking. We were not told when to return to the gate, because no one could say when the pilot might arrive.

As I was about to set off in search of a place to eat, Delta sent me a text message saying the flight would depart at 2 p.m., about two and a half hours late.

I informed the gate agent, who hadn’t yet received the news, then trekked off, looking for lunch.

When I returned to the gate at 1:45, I asked the flight attendant at the door whether they had used the extra time on the ground to fix the water system. No they hadn’t, she said. I expressed surprise at the waste of nearly two hours and told her that if I didn’t know better, I might imagine I was flying United. The passengers near the door had a good laugh.

After I got back in my seat and waited a while longer, a new announcement was made. We now had a pilot and would be taking off “soon.” However, for reasons that were never explained to us, our scheduled nonstop flight was rerouted through Salt Lake City. Here I should tell you that I usually do fly United (an airline with which I personally have never had a complaint, despite the frequent griping I’ve heard about it), but that I was on your airplane at the suggestion of my daughter, who thought I’d prefer Delta’s nonstop San Francisco–Detroit experience.

However, now that we’d be stopping – without explanation – in Utah, which is less than half the distance to Michigan, we were told we’d have to wait while the ground crew partially drained the fuel tanks. No one explained why, but it was clear to me that they didn’t want to fly with more fuel than necessary because of its extra weight. I watched the ground crew work on pumping out the fuel, a process that must have been a little more than usually complicated because a gaggle of people gathered around the enormous fuel hose and rolling scaffold, one of whom would occasionally point up at the underside of the wing with a screwdriver (not a tool you’d ordinarily associate with a routine connection and disconnection of a fuel hose). Noting that the pilot was deeply involved in all this palaver did nothing to ease my screwdriver-induced anxiety.

Finally, after I had requested a flight attendant to ask the pilot to explain to us what the problem had been with the “defueling” exercise and whether the plane was safe to fly, the pilot announced that all was good, the plane was fit to fly and we’d be taking off shortly.

By the time we were finally airborne, we were about three and a half hours behind schedule. The guy sitting next to me, a Kenyan on his way to Nairobi to attend a family funeral, had already missed his originally scheduled connecting flight in Amsterdam, was clearly going to miss a rebooked connection in London – and was sure he would miss the funeral as well.

When we landed in Salt Lake City, we spent another 20 minutes or so on the ground, taking aboard the additional fuel needed to reach Detroit. As it turned out, we also picked up a new pilot. Although no one bothered to explain the need for this, it seemed clear to me that this apparently pointless stop was made necessary by the complex regulations limiting the number of hours pilots are permitted to fly in order to avoid fatigue.

When we were finally aloft again, our new pilot felt obliged to apologize not only for the delays we’d experienced, but also for the fact that they would not be able to feed us, since the Salt Lake City “galley” that prepares food for departing planes had already closed for the day. Some of us might get sandwiches, he told us, and for the rest, the crew would do its best to distribute the plane’s supply of cookies and munchies.

While the many apologies we received from both pilot and flight attendants were clearly heartfelt, their evident embarrassment appears not to have filtered up to Delta management. To the best of my knowledge, no one was offered a meal voucher, and we were told we would have to pay for sandwiches and drinks.

For a company in what is essentially a hospitality business, this is not the recommended way to treat customers.

In the event, those sandwiches did turn out to be free – but no thanks to your company, Mr. Delta. A frequent flier sitting near the front of the plane – a Mr. Phelps, according to the pilot’s final announcement – had paid for all the food on board and asked that it be distributed gratis to all passengers. He had requested anonymity, but the pilot had been unable to resist telling the story of his kindness and generosity. The announcement elicited a round of applause. I hereby add my own thanks to Mr. Phelps, but I’d also like to express the hope that Delta, in a fit of belated responsibility, would reimburse Mr. Phelps for his trouble and send long-overdue meal and drink vouchers to all the weary passengers, who finally arrived in Detroit after midnight, five hours late for a scheduled four-hour-and-45-minute flight.

So, Mr. Delta, what can you do to win back a little goodwill from several hundred passengers who deserve better than what they got?


Delta’s response:

Hello Howard,

RE: Case 01083342

Thanks for contacting us regarding your flight from San Francisco to Detroit. I can certainly understand your frustration when your travel to Detroit was delayed and additionally diverted to Salt Lake City to change pilots.

We strive to make your travel experience enjoyable and comfortable but in your case we failed and I’m sorry. Rest assured I have shared your feedback about your travel, the inoperative water system and lack of adequate free meals/snacks with the appropriate leadership team. Kudos to Mr. Phelps. His generosity was certainly above and beyond.

In the interest of your goodwill, I’m adding 9,500 bonus miles to your SkyMiles account. The miles will appear within the next three to five business days. 

Howard, your loyalty is important to us and it is an honor to have you as part of the Delta family. We hope to serve you well on your next flight.

Kind regards,

Cary Peterson

Customer Care

My response to Delta:

Dear Cary Peterson,

Thank you for your extraordinarily prompt reply to the complaint I sent last night. I appreciate your effort to share my feedback “with the appropriate leadership team.” I hope and pray it gets all the way to Mr. Bastian [Delta’s CEO].

I also appreciate the 9,500 miles you’re adding to my Skymiles account. I hope you can do the same for the other frequent fliers on that flight — and something equivalent for those passengers who do not have a Skymiles account. Finally, I also hope you will reimburse Mr. Phelps and thank him profusely for doing his utmost to save Delta’s reputation. His loyalty to your company is quite literally priceless. 

Finally, I’d like to commend you on your great work. I imagined that my letter, although carefully crafted, would fall into a black hole out of which a response would come only after considerable delay. I am amazed by the alacrity — and substance — of your response. If I had a Customer Care team (I don’t), I’d hire you in a heartbeat.

Again, thank you.

With best wishes,

Howard Daniel

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