Interpreter service is not included in the price of your flight


When Siu-Fun Quan’s aunt and uncle decided to visit her in Minneapolis, they made the long trip over from China without incident. When it was time for them to return home, she wanted to make sure everything went smoothly as well. They do not speak any English, and Quan says that since she’d purchased their tickets from Delta, she spoke with a Delta representative who told her that an interpreter would meet them at the airport and escort them to the gate. The representative also assured her that an interpreter would meet them at their connection points as well. She did not have any of this in writing, but she was surprised when she arrived at the airport and there was no interpreter and the Delta representative told her that they have no such service.

Unfortunately, when her aunt and uncle arrived in Detroit their flight was delayed, then canceled. Quan says the couple was able to find their way to the hotel the airline provided for the night by following other passengers, but went hungry because they had no money and didn’t have the language skills to ask for a meal voucher.

Any of us who have travelled abroad, know how scary it can be to deal with unexpected circumstances in a place where you don’t speak the language. We’re lucky as Americans that English has become the lingua franca in many parts of the world, and it’s hard to find an airport that doesn’t have English-speaking personnel. Sadly, visitors to this country often don’t find the same accommodation in their language.

Related story:   What's wrong with air travel?

There are no interpreter services included in any airline’s contract of carriage that I know of — it’s unclear why Quan thought this was available, although it’s a bit surprising that in an airport from which a flight bound for China originates, the Delta staff couldn’t (or wouldn’t) find someone who spoke Chinese. I’ve been to pharmacies that offer a phone translation service for their customers in multiple languages. Seems like this might be an excellent service for the airlines to offer as well.

That said, it would have been prudent for the couple to have at least a Chinese-English phrase book with them. Or better, one of the many translation apps available for smartphones. My favorite is Google Translate, because unlike many of the others, it will work without an internet connection. And while I understand that since they thought they’d soon be boarding a flight out of the U.S., they might not have wanted to have much American currency on hand. But given the uncertainties of airline travel you can’t assume that everything will go as planned, and having a little cash, or a credit card for emergencies would have been prudent.

The couple did finally make it aboard their flight to China the next morning. They were each offered a $175 credit toward a future Delta flight as compensation for the delay. But given how traumatic this experience was, they are unlikely to visit the U.S. again. Quan had hoped that the airline might issue the credit to her in cash or as a American Express gift card so that she could take it to the couple on her next visit to China. Again, this is not something that the airline is likely to do. She could try pleading her case using the Delta executive contacts on our website. But otherwise there isn’t much we can do to help, and must file this under Case Dismissed.

Related story:   Help, my Hotwire hotel was a construction zone

Dale Irvin

Dale Irvin is a semi-retired writer and editor, now living in south Florida after three years roaming around North America in an RV. You can read about those adventures at fabulousfifthwheel.com.

  • sirwired

    Yeah, I’m not sure why a Delta phone rep would have promised a free translator in-route. That makes no sense at all. That said, it WOULD make sense for airport personnel to have access to Language Line service for unusual situations, which is available for most languages. (Even my local Home Depot offers it…)

    I will say that Google Translate is a good option, but for a Chinese-speaking person, a phrase book is not. Phrase books work well to translate between the various Western European languages, because they all share roughly the same alphabet and phonetics, and a written backup is always available.

    Chinese, which is both written and spoken in a way that is about the exact opposite of English? (An alphabet of pictograms and a tonal language vs. letters and atonality.) Yeah, a phrasebook will be entirely useless. You’ll be able to make your wishes known, but you won’t be able to understand any sort of answer, nor can you look it up.

    All that said, I am continually thankful that English is my native language. I have no aptitude for foreign language whatsoever, and recognize that even with that limitation, I can both participate in my chosen industry (computers, in which English proficiency is an absolute requirement) and travel throughout the world, nearly always able to find somebody that can speak my language, even in areas not generally frequented by tourists.

  • FQTVLR

    When my in-laws used to visit more often I always advised Delta that they spoke no English. (Delta had the only nonstop from their home city to Atlanta.) They were always met at the gate and taken by cart from one gate to another. On the one connection they made (When we were in the mid west one year) they were actually taken to a private room with other non-English speaking travelers. It appears to be another great service that has fallen by the wayside.

  • Dutchess

    I see a new revenue stream, “Unaccompanied Foreigners” you can charge $200 per ticket and they pin their boarding pass to their jacket.

  • Bill___A

    I come from a country where about 10% of the people are Asian and it isn’t difficult to find someone who speaks Chinese. It is difficult to imagine that there wouldn’t be a fellow passenger on a China bound flight that would speak Chinese and English, or a crew member for example. They should have carried a note with them to show people that says they don’t speak English only Chinese and that they didn’t bring any money or probably no credit cards. I didn’t see this mentioned in the comments, but they traveled across the world with NO MONEY? Airlines are not a babysitting service. Language was not their only problem. They should learn to travel or stay home.

  • AAGK

    Where in America is this service that provides money, to delayed travelers?

  • Altosk

    Yeah, this whole story doesn’t pull at my heartstrings but make me wonder how clueless people can be. After all, the couple is too “traumatized” to travel again?!?!

    Let’s break it down:
    1. They don’t speak English.
    Ok, there are plenty of people who don’t, but did they have a phone with them? I can’t imagine anyone NOT having a phone, and if not, the niece should’ve bought them a throw-away. That way, if some trouble arose, they could call the niece and she could translate on speaker phone.

    2. They didn’t have any money.
    How did they travel without any money? Just about everywhere takes plastic, even McDonalds. I can’t buy this excuse of why they didn’t eat. Sure, it would’ve been great to get a meal voucher, but when the chips are down, you may need to fend for yourselves. Again, a call to the niece to translate could’ve been made.

    3. They are traumatized.
    No, they are not. They were INCONVENIENCED. There’s a big difference and in this time of snowflakes being “triggered” by anything and everything, we need to call out these hyperbole and stupidity.

    4. What planet is the niece living on?
    She thinks an airline is going to provide concierge service to escort and translate? Does she live under a rock? These days, we’re one step from airlines charging people to use the restroom.

    Yeah, not sorry. C’mon…this wasn’t a “case” worthy of an ombudsman. This was a case of bad planning and lack of self-sufficiency.

  • Noah Kimmel

    I feel bad for the passengers, what a difficult journey home. However, Delta did what it was supposed to – it put them up in a hotel for the delay and had them out the next morning. I am surprised they got the hotel voucher without the airport meal voucher as those are generally printed together. It is a shame the daughter was unable to help them navigate this hiccup, and a miss that Delta didn’t provide meal voucher. But the $175 voucher to cover a missing $15 airport only food voucher (plus goodwill for cancellation) seems more than fair.

    Ultimately, I have to agree with the others – this is a bad situation, but Delta handled it well and offered goodwill for any misses. The travellers were definitely inconvenienced, and it is fine to ask for cash, but I don’t think it should be advocated for – in a goodwill situation, beggars can’t be choosers, and I’d hardly call it traumatic in the spectrum of today’s disruptive travel stories. Seems more like a fishing expedition than seeking an exception to standard customer service.

  • FQTVLR

    I was perplexed as well that the niece just left them at the airport. We never have left or will leave my non-English speaking in-laws at an airport without a) money b) a phone (or money for a pay phone before cell phones were common) and c) a page with different problems that might occur–in French and English. That page has come in handy through the years.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    You have common sense but there are people that doesn’t.

    When we went to Europe, 1) we learn a few words and simple phrases; 2) we made list of English to GermanFrenchItalianetc words and simple phrases and 3) English to GermanFrenchItalian dictionaries.

    This was a case of poor planning.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I agree with you that this was a case of poor planning. In regards to a cell phone, you are right that the OP could purchase a ‘throw-away’ phone for this trip…the OP’s aunt & uncle or another relative could even use it on the next trip.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    “I’ve been to pharmacies that offer a phone translation service for their customers in multiple languages. Seems like this might be an excellent service for the airlines to offer as well.”

    A few years ago, I had a business associate that came to the US with his family from China for a vacation. He had a question about his return flight and he asked me to call the airline (it was either Delta or AA…I can’t recall). When I contacted the airline, they had a Mandarin Support Line so I told him that he could call the airline himself.

    Given the large influx of Chinese travelers to the US, there are travel providers do have dedicated Customer Service for Chinese travelers.

  • DCMarketeer

    I was on a United flight leaving Dulles for PDX last summer that was cancelled after multiple delays. There was one couple who’d just arrived from Russia and was heading on to visit family in Portland who clearly did not speak a word of English. My college Russian is minimal these days. When I asked the gate attendant about an interpreter or language line services so that this couple would know what to do (get the hotel and meal vouchers, go to the hotel, come back the next morning for a rebooked flight), he was downright and told me it was not his job. And this was an international airport. Another passenger downloaded a translation app and, between the two of us, we did our best.

  • DAVE

    My wife, from China, was with her parents in Guillin, China. I went to visit her family and the two of us were to return to Philly. I made arrangements to fly from JFK to PEK to CKG to KWL. I had US money with me, but no China Yuan. I was smarter than I should have been in Beijing and did not exchange some money because it was only an hour change over in Chongqing and then a hop to Guilin.
    As I deplaned in Chongqing I looked for my next gate and it was plainly listed with a huge “X” through it and circled in Red. I knew I was in trouble. For those who have never travelled in the PRC, most areas of the country have nobody who speaks English. It took about two hours, but using pictures scribbled on a tablet I was able to switch $50 to Yuan, get a hotel and rebook my flight for the next morning. I also was able to contact my wife and it was explained to her that my flight was cancelled.
    Not the worst hotel room ever, but lower quality than motel 6. Food was an issue but I survived. Moral of the story. Don’t take anything for granted and be flexible.
    As for the writer of this post. Most elderly Chinese people are not highly educated (from my experiences) and it would be very difficult for them to navigate in an English speaking world. It would be nice for airlines and hotels and have language lines, but it would impact their bottom lines, and huge profits take precedence over everything else.

  • y_p_w

    Retail in China is mostly operating on a cash-only economy. International credit cards like Visa/MasterCard/Amex are available in China, but the big one in China is a homegrown company called UnionPay. It’s possible to get one of their cards that’s also accepted at Visa/MC locations, but it’s not a given. I’ve seen the UnionPay logo at outlet malls in the US, where Chinese tourists visit in large numbers. I’ve even seen ads that I believe tout coupon books for flashing a UnionPay card.

  • y_p_w

    This is a case where most airlines will gladly give out gate passes. I have a friend originally from China who does this whenever her parents visit her. The don’t quite understand the Southwest boarding process and otherwise wouldn’t understand stuff like boarding group announcements. And if there’s a delay they’re almost helpless unless there’s another passenger (or airline employee) who speaks Mandarin to help them out. So getting a gate pass helps a ton if anything changes.

    That friend was visiting Hawaii with her parents, who arrived separately from a different US city. They left the same day where they were returning to her brother’s home. However, her parents flight was delayed, and she navigated through their new boarding time, the delay meal voucher, and when and where to wait. Everything went OK, although a gate change would have probably messed them up. They might have been able to figure it out though with the departure monitor. Her flight left well before theirs, but it was supposed to be later.

    I’ve been to China myself and know very little Chinese. However, there enough in English for me to figure out what to do in a delay.

  • sirwired

    Well, if they didn’t have any plastic they could use, a wad of Reminbi for emergency use at an exchange booth would have worked just fine, if a little more expensive. (When I travel, I usually plan on using ATM machines to obtain local currency, but always bring $200-$300 in USD $20’s to tide me over (for changing at a booth) if I can’t get the ATM to work right away.

  • y_p_w

    It really depends. I told the story of my friend, and her parents are supposed to be well educated medical professionals in China. However, they are totally helpless if English is absolutely necessarily. Her dad supposedly learned a bit of English early in his professional career, but never really had a chance to use it and basically can’t hold even a basic conversation in English. That’s why she goes with them into the terminal on an escort pass if she’s allowed one.

    I’ve been delayed in China before. It was rather interesting. I was chatting it up with another American citizen who was dealing with delays due to fog making equipment unavailable throughout China. Managed to get overnight accommodations in Shanghai in some basic hotel room that was pretty new. It was kind of scary as the stairwell didn’t seem to have an inside railing. Anyone slipping through the hole could have fallen through several stories. We stayed on the outside of the stairwell. The attitude of people can be kind of odd. I remember riding a taxi to get out of a major city to a more rural tourist area. We had to pass through a checkpoint and we produced our US passports. My Chinese isn’t great, but the government worker took a look at it kind of indignant, and I think he said “What am I supposed to do with a US passport?” before he just handed it back and waved us through.

  • y_p_w

    Depends. I’ve flown United Airlines to/from China, and about half their flight attendants were Chinese speakers. However, at an airport on a domestic flight, that might be a bit trickier.

  • y_p_w

    I still don’t get why she didn’t just go to the counter and request an escort pass. I have a friend who does this all the time when her parents visit. They have green cards and live with her brother in another city, but don’t speak enough English to even have a simple conversation. She’s never been denied an escort pass requested because of their limited English language proficiency. It’s come in handy because the boarding process isn’t necessarily friendly to someone who doesn’t understand English, with boarding groups, etc. One time I helped her with them and before we corrected them they were doing things like getting in line in the earlier boarding group. I heard that one time they were just let in anyways, but sometimes other passengers aren’t terribly understanding.

  • MarkKelling

    Well, unless she flew along with them to their connection in Detroit where the issue occurred , the escort pass would not have done any good. And I think she may have escorted them to the gate for their first flight since there were no language issues there.

  • Alan Gore

    In any language, the same problem exists: the version of the language you need to know when something goes wrong is a lot more difficult than the version you can get by in on a normal day.

  • y_p_w

    Sorry – missed that little detail. That being said, if there’s a direct flight to China from Detroit, I’m surprised that there aren’t announcements made in Chinese and a Chinese-speaking employee there since there’s bound to be passengers who only speak Chinese.

  • Don Spilky

    “given how traumatic this experience was, they are unlikely to visit the U.S. again” Seriously? They aren’t going to come and see their family because they had a bad flight experience? Exaggeration much?

    How about “Next time they come, they will be better prepared”?

  • BrianInPVD

    I don’t think Delta had an obligation to provide a personal translator service, but most international flights have someone making announcements in both English and the language of the destination of the flight. It’s not unreasonable for Delta to ensure that a Mandarin speaking GA is available to reaccommodate delayed passengers. Even without a formal translator, it’s likely other pax on the same flight speak Mandarin.

    The other issue would be whether the pax were conversant in Mandarin. With many dialects, for some Chinese people Mandarin is a second or third language, and they may not be as conversant in it despite it being the national language.

    In hospital settings, we use phone based interpreters, and we are usually able to find interpreters in even the most obscure dialects.

  • y_p_w

    It would be unlikely that they wouldn’t understand Mandarin, even if their individual dialect might not be intelligible to the average Mandarin speaker. And most people can reasonably adjust their speaking to be more neutral and better understood. However, I know a lot of people from China, and many dialects seem to be fading away slowly as there’s a push for uniformity in schools.

    I’m still not quite sure what happened. Like you, I’d find it unusual that they wouldn’t have made announcements in Mandarin given the destination.

  • y_p_w

    Well – they might not want to use the vouchers in the US, but could they be used with Delta’s partner airlines? I’m looking it up, and they have China Eastern, China Southern, and XiamenAir as partners.

  • Attention All Passengers

    …”they went hungry” ? Seriously, do people (elderly or language barrier or not) travel with no money?
    …and yes, DL does offer a language service hookup by phone at any/all of their ticket counters or gates. Just another case of lazy or incompetent agents with no concern for a few passengers that they may have to go the extra mile for.

  • gpx21dlr

    Surprised that the airport in Detroit had no one of Asian descent employed. There may have been customers in the airport of Asian ethnicity able to help Aunt & Uncle. I also think the niece should have prepared them with a letter(s) in case something like this happens. I hold the niece to blame for some of their problems.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.