The strange case of a vanishing Delta Air Lines flight crew

By | June 12th, 2017

Deborah Glotzer showed up for her recent Delta Air Lines flight from Boston to Seattle. Her flight crew didn’t.

“We were informed by the gate crew that the reason for the cancellation was that the flight crew did not report for the flight,” she says. “They were not reachable through any method of contact.”

It’s definitely one of the stranger reasons we’ve heard for a flight cancellation. And it makes me wonder if dereliction of duty is a reason for upping a passenger’s compensation. Or offering any compensation at all.

Glotzer says after some delay, Delta reached the first officer, but not the pilot. No replacement flight crew could be assigned.

“After several more delays, the flight was canceled,” she says. “I consider these circumstances a dereliction of duty, and thus Delta’s responsibilities toward booked passengers differ from those in which flights are canceled due to issues related to weather or mechanical difficulty.”

Is she right?

In the explanation of airline passenger rights on its website, the Department of Transportation notes, “Contrary to popular belief, for domestic itineraries airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled.”

Even when the crew doesn’t show up.

Delta’s contract of carriage, which you agree to when you buy a ticket from the airline, spells it out:

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. Delta may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, change seat assignments, and alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket at any time. Schedules are subject to change without notice. Except as stated in this rule, Delta will have no liability for making connections, failing to operate any flight according to schedule, changing the schedule for any flight, changing seat assignments or aircraft types, or revising the routings by which Delta carries the passenger from the ticketed origin to destination.


In the event of flight cancellation, diversion, delays of greater than 90 minutes, or delays that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment in accordance with Rule 260 of these conditions of carriage. If the passenger does not request a refund and cancellation of the ticket, Delta will transport the passenger to the destination on Delta’s next flight on which seats are available in the class of service originally purchased. At Delta’s sole discretion and if acceptable to the passenger, Delta may arrange for the passenger to travel on another carrier or via ground transportation.

Here’s how the legalese above applies to Glotzer. Delta offered to put her on the “Delta’s next flight on which seats are available in the class of service originally purchased.”

But that reservation wouldn’t get her and her husband to Seattle until the next day. And they’d miss a planned meet-up with family members. So they declined. The situation was made even more difficult by communication problems as Glotzer tells it.

“I informed Delta via email of this decline,” she says. “I was unable to notify them via telephone due to the estimated call back times posted on the Delta recorded message when I attempted to call, as we would be in transit and without telephone service.”

Then they made arrangements to fly other airlines that would get them to Seattle sooner.

Through the help of our travel agent, we were able to rebook on a combination of United and Alaska flights via San Francisco that allowed us to arrive in Seattle approximately eight hours later than the original plans, and though not ideal, allowed us to coordinate with the family member. The costs for this revised itinerary totaled $3,308 (flights $1,294 X 2, baggage fees $110 X 2, travel agent fees $70 X 2).

I can’t help but wonder why a travel agent (who’s charging them $70 each to rebook their flight) didn’t have a way to reach Delta’s customer service more quickly and try to sweet-talk them into honoring the part of the contract of carriage that says: “At Delta’s sole discretion and if acceptable to the passenger, Delta may arrange for the passenger to travel on another carrier…” Admittedly, though, it’s a tough ask when the original tickets were secured with frequent flyer points.

But that didn’t happen. And now she’d like the airline to reimburse her for her additional costs. Which, as noted above, it has no legal obligation to do.

Delta did reimburse the frequent flyer miles she used to buy the original tickets, give her an additional 20,000 miles, refund their baggage fees and give her about $500 in vouchers. But if, indeed, the story of the vanishing flight crew is true, should Delta have done more as a goodwill gesture?

Should Delta have offered Glotzer more compensation?

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  • Joe Blasi

    Under eu261 this would of lead to an cash payout event.

  • michael anthony

    I’m surprised Delta reportedly said so much. “They reached First Officer, but not the pilot”. They usually keep communication to a minimum on crew delay, like “The incoming crew is on a plane running late, etc”. From aviation incident sites, the most common reason, beyond their incoming plane being late, is crews coming down with a similar illness, such as all eating at same restaurant and getting severe GI symptoms. I don’t think you can fault the carrier in these instances. and if you are going to fault them, then during the lengthy delay at the airport, the OP should have asked for assistance from the desk staff, supervisor or Red Coat individual. In many instances reported here, the OP buys new tickets and then wants reimbursement.

  • Jeff W.

    A few observations:

    * I wonder if the travel agent was used to book the original itinerary. But even if she had, since these were FF award tickets, options would have been limited. Back when United and US Airways were partners, I had FF tickets on UA that were rebooked on US when one of my flights were delayed. But DLinterlining with UA on an award ticket would be rare. And DL and Alaska are not the best of friends right now. But you are correct in that the TA would have had better luck contacting Delta.

    * As for the missing crew. I have had crew show up very late because of hotel or transportation issues. Like their van broke down in transit. So if their van broke down in one in the Ted Williams tunnel, for example, they may not have reachable. Crews do not always stay at the hotels near the airport, so sometimes this happens. Or the crew was working another flight and there was a computer mix-up. Those are the only reasons I can think of for an entire crew to not report.

  • Ben

    Assuming their flight was in the morning, Delta should have gotten them on a flight that day on any airline. Since they had to rebook themselves, I think Delta should pay the difference (in cash, or vouchers with a premium for the inconvenience, or miles with a large premium for the inconvenience)
    between the original reservation and what they ended up paying.

    It’s hard to answer the poll without knowing how much they originally paid. I’d imagine the last-minute booking on other airlines were much more expensive than the value of the points used for the original reservation and that the compensation wasn’t close.

  • deemery

    Airline is responsible, even if there’s a good reason (such as “everyone got sick.” It’s not an Act of God situation.

  • BubbaJoe123

    “I can’t help but wonder why a travel agent (who’s charging them $70 each to rebook their flight) didn’t have a way to reach Delta’s customer service more quickly and try to sweet-talk them into honoring the part of the contract of carriage that says: “At Delta’s sole discretion and if acceptable to the passenger, Delta may arrange for the passenger to travel on another carrier…” Admittedly, though, it’s a tough ask when the original tickets were secured with frequent flyer points.”

    So, you’re wondering why a travel agent wouldn’t be willing to expend time and energy to NOT sell travel? Gee, I wonder…

  • FQTVLR

    Not sure I agree here. For example it would be hard to blame the airline if the van the flight crew was in on the way to the airport was broadsided by a drunk driver and the crew ended up in the hospital. Not an act of god, but also not the fault of the carrier. FYI–this actually happened to me one year. Flight was cancelled as there was not a handy replacement crew waiting around to fly a plane back to the states.

  • Noah Kimmel

    One benefit people routinely don’t use is the Fly Delta App. With a delay longer than 20 minutes, it allows you to rebook yourself online without talking to a person. While I don’t know what happened that day, given Delta’s hub structure, it is usually possible to find something same day, especially if not a big weather challenge. This usually opens up a lot of routings including 2 stop options that many gate agents don’t always look up.

    Delta did offer them a refund + bonus miles (the article seems to sound like they paid in miles). It shouldn’t have to pay for an apples-oranges flight – connection on 2 other carriers it had no say in the routing or pricing for. If you want airline to pay on another carrier, you have to work with them. Nor do I think Delta needs to pay for the travel agent or bag fees on another carrier. That to me is same as asking to value my time and pay my missed salary, which we routinely disagree with here in the comments.

  • deemery

    I’m thinking “legally” here. The legal obligation is to fly the aircraft. The same line of reasoning could well apply to mechanical faults “that part has never broken before” or even “we got bad fuel from the airport”.

    I’m coming from a perspective that the airline is responsible/liable except for some well-defined exceptions.

    (But this is a worthy discussion – what should be the requirement or the limit on an airline in the case of delays?)

  • Bill___A

    When you have to get somewhere important, don’t book a flight immediately before it so you don’t have any time to deal with problems.

    I have no idea why Delta could not contact any crew members, or why they couldn’t find another one at some time, but when I have to go somewhere important, I go early.

  • John Baker

    Part of the issue is that this is a FF ticket. If they lack status, guess who’s on the bottom of the waitlist for rebooking? Yea that would be no revenue tickets. They also won’t interline FF very often is you don’t have status either.

    Sounds like DL rebooked them on the next flight (as far as I can see they only fly once a day) but that wasn’t acceptable.So, DL refunded the ticket & their fees (which the COC says they will do) plus give them enough added miles for another FF ticket and $500 in funny money. Not bad in my book.

  • Kerr

    Even for FF travel?

  • BubbaJoe123

    Yup.

  • jsn55

    This is one of the most bizarre travel stories I’ve ever encountered. Passenger should be reimbursed by Delta for every dollar she had to spend to get to Seattle. I find it odd that so much information was given out to the passengers about the situation. Usually it’s a huge effort to find out anything at all about your flight when there are problems. Bizarre.

  • Koholaz

    The only way we’re going to make airlines cut out the shenanigans and deliver the service as promised it so hit them in the pocketbook. Weather is one thing but this is beyond ridiculous especially since their call center was not accessible. What do we need to start doing, book tickets a week ahead of a a planned event to ensure we get there on the desired day because the airlines can just cancel flights whenever it doesn’t feel Ike flying?

  • Chris Johnson

    How does this crap happen? I’ve been on flights where this has occurred before myself, although it is somewhat rare. All I can say is, if I “vanished” from my job, I wouldn’t have it for very long. In the HR world, I believe that is referred to as “job abandonment” where you are automatically fired after not showing up for three days in a row, typically. Furthermore, don’t the airlines have contact information for their employees? It seems like cell phone numbers of traveling employees would be especially important with an airline when you have employees that don’t sit in an office building all day long.

  • Alan Gore

    Delta should have interlined them, and chose not to, which apparently is in the fine print. Being able to interline in irregular operations is supposedly the reason for choosing a network carrier over Southwest, isn’t it?

    We need an EU261-class regulation to cover this.

  • Alan Gore

    Common crew sickness is not the carrier’s ‘fault’ as such, but not using it as an excuse to leave passengers high and dry should be their responsibility.

  • cscasi

    But, we are not talking about the EU 261 rule here in the United States.

  • cscasi

    My wife and I were flying from DFW to FRA to DUB and back on vacation in September 2016, The flight from DFW to FRA departed about an hour late and by the time we got to FRA, we missed the connection to DUB. The next flight from FRA to DUB was about 5.5 hours later. We were flying Lufthansa all the way. We booked those flights through United, using United award miles. We flied a claim with Lufthansa for the delay and were awarded 625 Euros each (which was paid in U.S. dollars via checks sent to our home address). So, yes, EU 261 does apply and it does not matter if one is on a paid fare or award miles.

  • cscasi

    What is the airline responsible for? It’s contract of carriage states (as stated above), “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. Delta may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, change seat assignments, and alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket at any time. Schedules are subject to change without notice. Except as stated in this rule, Delta will have no liability for making connections, failing to operate any flight according to schedule, changing the schedule for any flight, changing seat assignments or aircraft types, or revising the routings by which Delta carries the passenger from the ticketed origin to destination.
    The couple cancelled their tickets and purchased tickets on another airline because what delta offered them, would get them where they were going, too late. ”
    In the event of flight cancellation, diversion, delays of greater than 90 minutes, or delays that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment in accordance with Rule 260 of these conditions of carriage. If the passenger does not request a refund and cancellation of the ticket, Delta will transport the passenger to the destination on Delta’s next flight on which seats are available in the class of service originally purchased. At Delta’s sole discretion and if acceptable to the passenger, Delta may arrange for the passenger to travel on another carrier or via ground transportation.”
    Delta would have gotten them to their destination, albeit later than they wanted, but was within its rules to do so. Delta did not have to put them on another competitor’s flight, although it “may” have done so.
    They are lucky that Delta did what it did for them, considering they cancelled their tickets.

  • Lindabator

    they may not even have BOOKED the FF ticket in the first place.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Yup!

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