A blown tire and bizarre bathroom break for this Delta “vacation”

By | December 22nd, 2015

Lisa West’s case is strange, but not as strange as the response she received from Delta when she complained about it.

West was flying from Richmond, Va., to Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic. But the flight didn’t go as planned. The last leg of her flight was diverted to Puerto Plata, another Dominican Republic airport over 250 miles away, triggering a series of problems.

She arrived at her destination a full day after her vacation was supposed to start, and wanted Delta to compensate her for the missed time. Of course, Delta said “no.” But it’s the circumstances that are a little odd — and so was the way it said “no.”

But let’s scroll back to the events leading up to the delay. Flight 543 from Atlanta to Punta Cana was initially diverted because of weather. But the plane landed at an airfield that couldn’t accommodate a Boeing 737-800 — at least that’s what passengers were told — and one of the plane’s tires blew out. Delta had to charter a bus to take the passengers to their destination. (And yes, I realize the photo above is not of a 737-800 at a tropical airport. Stock photography fail!)

Passengers waited four hours for the bus, and the trip to Punta Cana took another 5 1/2 hours. What an adventure.

Strangest moment? That’s when the bus driver pulled over for a restroom break. There were no facilities.

“He instructed travelers to ‘go behind a building’ to relieve themselves,” she recalls.

Now, of course Delta isn’t responsible for the weather that led to the delay, or the supposed short runway. But in aggregate, it’s easy to see how passengers like West would think Delta has a responsibility to get her to her destination on time, even if its conditions of carriage say otherwise. Rule 80 (there are a 126 rules!) Flight Delays/Cancellations states:

Flight Schedules are Not Guaranteed

Delta will exercise reasonable efforts to carry passengers and their baggage according to Delta’s published schedules and the schedule reflected on the passenger’s ticket, but published schedules, flight times, aircraft type, seat assignments, and similar details reflected in the ticket or Delta’s published schedules are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract.

Still, Delta responded to her complaints with a nice form letter and a few worthless miles (are there any other kind?).

Thanks for your e-mail. I’m sorry to learn your flight out of Atlanta wasn’t pleasant. After reading your email, I certainly understand why you wanted to let us know about your airport experience.

We expect our staff to be helpful, professional and provide accurate and consistent information to our passengers at all times. Updated flight information is important, so I understand how you felt when you didn’t get it. When there’s a delay or cancellation, our service team at the gate is trained to make timely announcements, so you have the information you need. I recognize you had hotel booking and you didn’t receive the service you expected and should have received. If I were in your place, I would be upset too.

We Hear You
Feedback from important customers like you is really valuable to us. I’ll be forwarding your comments to our Airport Customer Service team so they are aware of the things you have encountered.


Bonus Miles
As a goodwill gesture, I’m adding 11,500 bonus miles to your SkyMiles accounts. They should be transferred into your account within three business days.

Your loyalty and business as a SkyMiles member is greatly appreciated. We will do our best to serve you well on your next flight with us.

She appealed to the executives, pointing out that her companion hadn’t received as many miles as she did. And that prompted the following response.

Thank you for writing to our Executive Office to express your continued dissatisfaction with your travel experience and our responses to your concerns. On behalf of our Executive Leadership, please accept my apology for having let you both down in so many ways. It is abundantly clear your experience traveling with us was far from a shining moment in airline travel.

I am genuinely sorry it was necessary for you to write again after receiving responses from us and speaking with one of our representatives. Concerned that the purpose of your communication was missed, I reviewed your correspondence along with our responses. Given the numerous service failures you and Mr. Owens endured, I recognize why receiving a response which did not specifically address your concerns may have added insult to the experience. Rest assured, your experience was not lost on us even though each incident was not specifically mentioned. After a lengthy review of your ordeal, I recognize your and Mr. Owen’s experience deserves additional consideration.

Please know we’re taking your concerns very seriously and have shared your email with Airport Leadership Team for internal review and action. I’m also sorry to read that you felt the compensation provided fell short. Please know the gestures extended were not meant to place a value on your or Mr. Owens’ experience; rather it was an attempt to make amends for your disappointment with our service.

Our records show you’ve received 10,000 and 11,500 bonus miles in your SkyMiles account and Mr. Owens has received 10,000 bonus miles in his SkyMiles account. While we are unable to provide monetary compensation or a refund of the outbound portion of your flight as you’ve requested, as a gesture of goodwill, I have issued 11,500 bonus miles to Mr. Owens SkyMiles account. I realize the bonus miles may not erase the negative impact of your or Mr. Owens’ past experiences, but hope it will show you we are sorry for your disappointment with us.

Again, I am sorry your travel was unsatisfactory and trust your return journey will be most pleasant in every way. As SkyMiles members, I hope in time you will provide us with another opportunity to restore your confidence.

Who is writing these responses? Where did they learn English?

The worst thing about it: Delta didn’t even bother to try to make it look like a personal response.

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 8.50.41 AM

Yeah, nothing says “we care” like a fill-in-the-blank email from an airline.

Why does Delta send out letters like this? Because it can. The miles are a joke, as are all frequent flier miles.

Of course the airline owes her nothing, at least according to its contract. But that doesn’t mean it did the right thing.

Did Delta offer Lisa West enough compensation?

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  • RichardII

    Perhaps Delta didn’t handle the customer communications well. But, really, what were they supposed to do? Land at Punta Cana in spite of the weather. If the field was short, they had to use the brakes more than usual, and lost a tire. They probably had to empty the plane of people and fuel just to get it out of there. If the LW had a bad day, Delta’s day was probably worse and I am sure the pilots were a bit stressed.

  • Randy Culpepper

    So is Delta supposed to have spare aircraft at every potential airport JUST IN CASE a diversion happens? Also, I don’t have any problem with the restroom break–that’s how it’s done in much of the world. If the local culture makes you uncomfortable, then maybe you shouldn’t be traveling there.

  • J M

    My Southwest miles aren’t useless… is a refrain I plan to post every time any writers post how useless miles are.

  • RichardII

    You land the plane where air traffic control tells you. Not where you want to. We also have no idea of weather conditions at other nearby airports, or other conditions that would affect the flight. To blame Delta with only the only the LW’s report to go by seems to be a bit unfair.

  • RichardII

    With weather bad enough to close the intended destination and having to prepare for a landing at an alternate field that was (according to the LW) too short, I would think the pilots might be forgiven for not telling the pax all the details of the situation and about how they would get to their final destination. And, BTW, what mistake did Delta or the pilots make?

  • RichardII

    Doesn’t the Montreal convention define how many miles it takes to compensate for having to squat and pee behind a building? Serious first-world problem.

  • RichardII

    There is something fishy here. Puerto Plata airport (IATA code POP) has one runway (08/26) that at 10,108 feet, is just under 2 miles long. A fully loaded 737-800 need a maximum of 7,166 feet to land on a wet runway. In case that is not clear enough, POP is an international airport serving most US airlines (but, not Delta) and can handle 747s.

    LW reports she was told the runway was too short. By whom?

    As to why they had to take a bus to Punta Cana. Who knows. But, weather may well have been a factor.

  • Bill___A

    I am not all that interested in defending Delta here, but for better or worse, all of the airlines seem to suck at having updated gate information from what I can see. And all of them suck at reading any entire complaint, they send canned responses. This seems to be the industry standard – to not completely read or understand the complaint letter, and then to give an infuriating response and some miles.

    Maybe the entire industry should clean up their act.

    As for going to another airport and having to pee behind a building, going to a third world country is an adventure, and this is part of it. That just happens.

  • sirwired

    Normally I would say “a voucher for the botched customer service response, but otherwise nothing.” (As I’ve pointed out many times, the idea that a common carrier is not responsible for what you planned to do after you arrived is not some nefarious scheme by the airlines, it goes back decades (centuries)?) And it is doubly true in the case of a diversion that wasn’t the fault of the carrier.) For such a situation, 10k miles isn’t bad. (You can hardly blame Delta for the lack of flush toilets on the bus ride.)

    But in THIS case, the blown tire (a serious safety hazard) appears to have been totally Delta’s fault. Their dispatcher COMPLETELY messed up the flight plan if the alternate airport was one without a runway of suitable length. If the alternate can’t handle a -800, they shouldn’t be flying -800’s to the primary.

  • Chris_In_NC

    Not just limited to airlines with regards to fill-in-the-blank form responses. I just had correspondence with a major hotel chain, where the person filled in the wrong field and it created a hilarious “personalized” form letter. As my PR department keeps emphasizing, customer service these days is all about “perception” not “reality.” Perhaps that is truly what is wrong with the travel industry and customer service in reality.

  • Tom McShane

    What? No BusMiles?

  • Tom McShane

    Richard, First World Problems are the ones we have. All these travel issues are First World Problems. If folks started posting about First World Problems on a tropical disease website, then you’d have a beef.

  • S363

    All those who shares Mr. Elliott’s opinion that all frequent flier miles are “a joke” can please give theirs to me. I’ve taken five or six nice vacations with FF miles in the last decade, without doing anything any differently than I would have otherwise. If you all would give me yours too I could go First Class more often! I generally like Mr. Elliott’s work, but his jihad against frequent flier programs is getting rather tiresome.

  • tomg63

    Agreed. Whoever writes these stories needs to learn how to use Wikipedia to verify a few facts. There is a weath of info about airports there. POP has flights from Europe that operate there. I’m sure it can handle a 737 from Atlanta.

  • MarkKelling

    “a few worthless miles (are there any other kind?)” Just can’t resist poking the dead horse, can you?

  • sirwired

    Well, the flight plan is supposed to include an alternate SAFE airport. An alternate airport with a runway that’s too short is, by definition, not safe. That likely wan’t a mistake by the pilot, but WAS a mistake by the flight dispatcher, who is supposed to take all that into account.

  • RichardII

    Except the runway is long enough to land a 747 (and does).

    https://skyvector.com/airport/MDPP/Puerto-Plata-Airport

  • Kairho

    But at over 10k feet long, POP’s runway (standard conditions) is quite sufficient for a 737. Filing POP as an alternate is not an unsafe practice. Now unusual weather could be a factor but unless it was forecast it wouldn’t be considered.

  • Jeff W.

    Not sure how much Delta is at fault. They have some blame, but not 100%.

    But did she receive 11.5K miles as indicated in the first letter or 21.5K as mentioned in the somewhat sloppy second letter? If it is the latter, that is almost enough for a free domestic flight if the chosen carefully. I know Chris’ stand on these, but you make lemonade out of those lemons. If not to go somewhere, have someone come to you.

  • RichardII

    If one cannot deal well with problems that exist outside the first world, then one should probably not leave it. Or, at least, not expect to be compensated for encountering such problems.

  • Tom McShane

    Well, what Red-blooded American Male would not pay extra to pee behind a building? Soon the Legacy Carriers will be monetizing that.

  • Jeff W.

    I would not classify the DR as a third-world country. Second most likely. The DR is a very popular tourist destination and a democracy. Yes, some of the areas are not developed. But you can say that for some areas in the States as well.

    The DR’s neighbors to the west, Haiti, would be a different story.

  • Kairho

    Actually, you land at your declared alternate unless something precludes that. It’s the captain’s decision in any case although ATC often has serious input.

    As to returning to Florida…I don’t think so. Planes these days generally fly with not much more than the minimum fuel needed (which is enough to fly to the scheduled airport plus then to the alternate plus 45 minutes worth plus whatever cushion the pilot wants based on weather forecast, winds, etc.).

    Nonetheless, stills begs the question of why Santiago DR was not the alternate (Delta flies there).

  • sirwired

    Huh; then I wonder why the pilot said the runway was too short if it wasn’t.

  • RichardII

    The article says “…that’s what passengers were told…” It doesn’t say who told them that. But, I seriously doubt it was the pilots.

    BTW, DR has at least 4 major airports and Delta flies to 3 destinations there. It is quite possible the preferred alternate was not available because of the same weather that affected Punta Cana.

  • Randy Culpepper

    Actually, it’s quite easy to transfer miles, though there is a service fee (of course).

  • Skeptic

    I would rather “go” outside (in a secluded spot) than use most of the heavily-used, poorly-maintained, gross bathrooms in airports etc. these days!

  • KanExplore

    Nor are my AA, UA or AS miles. Even Delta SkyMiles are worth something, though quite a bit less. But that’s Elliott for you. I’ve learned not to bother reading his stuff on the topic, but can’t help it if he has to wedge it in sideways as in this case which is really about other issues.

  • KanExplore

    There’s the kind I’m using for my trip to East Africa in March for the cost of the government taxes.

  • 42NYC

    Santiago (and Santo Domingo) may have also had weather problems since they’re comparatively much closer to PUJ. Then again, i wasnt there.

  • 42NYC

    sadly most travelers flying to Punta Cana (or the DR in general) are not going to learn/appreciate the local culture. They’re going so that they can drink rum on the beach at an all inclusive taking advantage of the low costs of labor in order to provide a resort experience at a third of the price of other Carribean Islands. Not saying they couldnt have dealt with it, but lets not pretend this flight was a group of backpackers on their way to Port Au Prince to build houses.

  • Lindabator

    ATC could have given them the back runway, if they were busy, which would force a harder braking upon landing, causing a blown tire (potentially)

  • Joe Blasi

    ORD has the nice auto seat cover ones.

  • gracekelley

    Maybe it was the closest airport in relation to fuel available? Maybe the one or ones closed for weather could handle it or maybe the ones that could handle the aircraft didn’t matter if they didn’t have enough fuel to make it. There has to be a reason likely many for it?

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