If there’s one thing that can be said about the airline industry in 2016, it’s that there are no guarantees.
As the price of oil plummets and the airlines are reporting record profits, none of the fees have gone away. Travel in the economy-class cabin has become increasingly uncomfortable, with U.S. air carriers squeezing in as many seats as possible.
And there are certain passengers who would like to buy their way out of the misery of the economy cabin. Perhaps they don’t have the thousands to throw around on a first-class trans-Atlantic ticket, but they can invest a little more for the guarantee of a roomier seat, one with a bit more legroom.
But there’s that word again: guarantee.
It’s what Marcia Conrad expected when she booked and paid for bulkhead Delta Comfort seats from Baltimore to Belfast more than ten months in advance of departure. She’s taking the trip with her husband to see the Titanic exhibit in August.
“It’s a last hurrah, so to speak, as my husband has been battling cancer for the last two years. He needs the bigger seat, due to his serious health issues,” she says.
Unexpectedly, Conrad found herself at our doorstep.
“I checked on our Delta reservations and found, much to my dismay, that our seats had been given to other passengers and that we had been pushed almost to the back of Comfort Class,” she wrote to our advocacy team. “I immediately phoned Delta and was told that a computer had taken our seats away from us. The young woman with whom I spoke was able to move us a bit closer to the front of the class but she would not give us our original front row seats back.”
If you pay months in advance for a particular seat upgrade and select your seat, shouldn’t that be guaranteed? Is there nothing a passenger can do beyond crossing his fingers to receive a product that he prepaid for?
It’s the same predicament that Steven Steinberg faces on Norwegian Airlines. He and his wife bought tickets from Los Angeles to London, and long ago paid the additional fees to select economy bulkhead seats. As time went on, Norwegian changed the aircraft from a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner to the “stretch” 787-9. The newer aircraft can accommodate more passengers and generate more revenue for the airline. When the aircraft switch was made, Steinberg’s row and seat assignment stuck — in name only — but that row and seat is not a bulkhead seat on the new plane. You guessed it — it’s a random economy-class seat.
“Had the airline informed me of the equipment change, I would have immediately selected bulkhead seats,” he tells us. “Now, it’s too late. The seats are gone. I paid for bulkhead seats, and it’s an easy fix. But they won’t fix it.”
Ten years ago, it seemed pretty easy to get an upgrade to business class or to a better economy seat without much trouble. Now, even when you pay the fees that have sent airline profits soaring, you don’t know what you’ll get until you get to the gate for boarding.
These seat assignment cases are challenging from an advocacy standpoint, because until the flight has already left, there is no certainty. The airline could still potentially correct the situation. I have more than once told a passenger, “I can’t fix a problem that hasn’t happened yet. You’re anticipating the problem. You’ll have to advocate for yourself and come back for a refund if it doesn’t work out.”
But it shouldn’t be that way. When a product is advertised and a consumer pays for it, in full and in advance no less, the consumer should feel relatively certain that there won’t be any unpleasant surprises.
In Conrad’s case, we contacted Delta on her behalf. She wrote to me this morning in distress.
Our situation with Delta has gone from bad to worse.
Because I requested that we be seated closer to our son and daughter-in-law on the flights from Baltimore to Atlanta and from Atlanta to Baltimore, we were removed from our front row Comfort Plus seats and put back into Coach Class. Yes, we are now seated with our son and daughter-in-law but I sure did not want to be ousted from my front, Comfort Plus class back into Coach.
A man from Delta contacted me and said that he would get our front row Comfort Plus seats back for us on the flights from Atlanta to Dublin and back again. I have never heard from him again. A woman from Delta contacted me and gave me a very hard time but then I was sure she said that our original seats had been restored to us. I went onto the Delta website and saw that she had plunked me and my husband into the front row in the center of the plane — that row has four seats across and we were stuck into the two center seats. With my husband’s situation, I cannot have him sitting next to a person I don’t know, a person who might be coughing or sneezing or ill in some other way. My husband’s immune system is a bit compromised. I had us in the very first two seats of a two seat row with me on the aisle and my husband next to the window where no one could cough or sneeze on him. So, I went back in and took other seats that are at least in that two seat section of double seats next to the windows.
My stance is still that I bought a particular product, I immediately paid for that particular product, I was sent confirmation that I owned that particular product and then it was taken away from me with no word at all. I believe that when a person buys and pays for a product in full, the company from which the product was purchased has no right to come back and snatch the product back from the customer.
And that’s exactly what it feels like to Conrad and Steinberg. The airlines tricked them into believing they’d get those seats — tricked them by taking their hard-earned money — and then took the seats away.
The customer service games only add insult to injury. If the airlines can’t guarantee seats, perhaps they should stop collecting fees for them, until the time of boarding. Nobody likes broken promises. But it sure does help the bottom line.