Delta bends a rule after daughter’s tragic death

By | February 19th, 2015

I’m honored to introduce our newest columnist, Andrew Der. His weekly feature is called “The Good News Guy” and it offers a much-needed counterpoint to all the negative stories on this site. I hope you find this feature as uplifting and inspiring as I have.

Too often, airline rules add insult to injury.

If you cancel a flight, for example, they make you pay even more for a new one, assuming the fees and fare differential don’t consume the entire value of your credit. And forget about changing the name on your ticket — it’s not allowed.

But those rules are not written in stone. Thank goodness for that.

Consider what happened to Charlie and Katie Heitzig, who asked Delta Airlines for a simple favor a few weeks ago. They wanted to change the name on the ticket which had been issued to their 12-year-old daughter, Grace, to that of her sister Ellie’s friend.

Normally, this kind of change request would be automatically dismissed. Delta’s policy is strict and unyielding. The ticket would have to stay in Grace’s name, and if she couldn’t use it, Delta would keep her $750 airfare.

Except for one thing: Grace was dead.

She’d passed away in January from natural causes.

“We have a long-awaited family beach vacation to Puerto Rico scheduled for spring break in March, and our Delta tickets were booked last fall,” says her father, Charlie Heitzig. “With Grace’s passing, our other daughter, Ellie, was not looking forward to the vacation as much, as she would be the only kid. So, we decided to ask a friend of Ellie’s to travel with us to help balance out the group and give Ellie someone closer to her own age to hang out with.”

Related story:   My Aeroméxico ticket was wrong, and I don't want to pay the change fee

Heitzig’s wife called Delta and spoke with a representative named Peggy, who was both “supportive and kind,” he says.

Peggy expressed her sympathies very sincerely and said that she would do whatever she could, but that a manager would also need to be involved.

We ultimately only paid a $25 processing fee, but the original ticket was refunded and a new one issued for Ellie’s friend at the original price.

Please understand that we originally paid $740 for Grace’s fare, but the fare for the same ticket was around $1,500 when we called, so there was significant money involved.

Heitzig contacted us because he wanted to let everyone at Delta know how grateful he was for their generosity at a difficult time. We happily supplied him with names and numbers. We also offered to help him get the word out about Delta’s amazing response.

There are many layers of beauty in this beyond just the airline changing a name.

Delta didn’t just take a financial hit on the ticket; it did so without resistance. It balanced its policy, established to ensure its profitability, with compassion for its passengers.

Of course, that kind of empathy shouldn’t be extraordinary. It ought to be routine.

Maybe if we write about it enough, it will be.

But perhaps the most poignant layer of this story is the Heitzigs themselves. Many of us find ourselves ruffled by a day of lesser aggravations. But the Heitzigs, despite the most tragic of all circumstances for parents, felt it important to pause and simply ask how to best express their gratitude – and nothing more.

Related story:   Two change fees, one airline ticket -- and no help

If they can take a moment out of their overwhelming trauma and grief to just say a heartfelt “Thank you,” then surely the rest of us can, too.

Should Delta have fixed Charlie and Katie Heitzig's ticket?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...


  • Joe

    It may not be “by the book” and by policy, but it’s good to see a firm embrace common sense. Not every situation is the same, so while policies are generally there for a reason, it’s still great to see a company deviate and do the compassionate thing when it secures proper approval from management.

  • Michelle B.

    I don’t think they “lost” money. They still had the $750 in revenue plus an extra $25. It was a nice thing to do though.

  • Retired

    Thank you for this initiative, as we don’t hear of the good deeds often enough.

  • BillCCC

    While I am happy that Delta was able to help this family, why can’t they make aname change for anyone else that might need it. As long as it is in a reasonable amount of time prior to a trip.

    I am curious for an explanation of how it cost Delta money to do this.

  • sirwired

    Well, it “cost” Delta money in the sense that the fare was running $750 higher at the time the change was made, and Delta only charged $25. (The initial paid $750 would have been refunded, in cash, if requested, as all airlines will refund the ticket for a deceased passenger; even Spirit will do this.)

  • Ward Chartier

    The world needs rules to operate effectively, but rules apply well to perhaps 98% of the events that arise. For the other 2%, the humane touch makes a difference. Peggy at Delta made a decision that was important to Heitzig, but also created considerable good will for Delta. I’m sure that neither Peggy nor her bosses expected favorable publication in this blog which amplifies both Peggy’s and her bosses’ decisions. A win for all.

  • cp556

    Ah, the Spirit as well as the Letter of the Law. I like that…

  • Library

    With all due respect, how does a 12-year-old die from “natural causes”?

  • Joe

    I think the original question from BillCCC is more in line with “what’s so difficult about changing a ticket from ‘John Doe’ to ‘Jane Doe’ in the first place?” What charges would Delta incur for doing that? I remember walking up to a Pan Am counter in the 80s and doing that no problem, so I’m curious why it’s an issue too.

  • BillCCC

    Exactly.

  • jeff

    Hallelujah !!!

  • MarkKelling

    I’m not a doctor, but I do know there are several diseases and medical conditions a child might have that could be fatal. I would think dying from any of those is “natural causes” no matter your age.

  • John Baker

    My daughter has a chronic illness that has led us to spend more than a few nights at the local children’s hospital. After talking with the ICU nurses, they have lost a lot of kids that died from natural causes (conditions that couldn’t be treated). More importantly… why does it matter what she died of?

  • mythsayer

    We do generally think of “natural causes” as being age related, but that’s only because we hear of older people dying in their sleep of “natural causes.” If you think about it, though, “natural causes” should include anything that isn’t an accident.

  • mythsayer

    That’s exactly what I was thinking! Think about it (general you, not you Michelle B.)… had Grace been able to use the ticket, Delta would only have gotten the original $750. As it was Delta got to keep the money and the seat was still occupied by one person. Just because a company CAN profit off of things like name changes doesn’t mean it should. It’s one thing to charge for these types of things so that reselling tickets is discouraged, but it’s entirely another to use it as a source of profit. The end result for Delta was the same no matter who used the ticket.

  • BRENDIAN

    Thank you, Delta!

  • MS

    It allows the buyers the ability to set up a new market for tickets, like stubhub. Imaging a situation where ticket brokers bought up all the tickets around major holidays and yanked up fares to crazy levels…

  • scoosdad

    In the real world of airlines, had this not happened, you can bet that seat would not have flown empty simply because Grace was not alive to use it. After a certain time during the check-in process, when the airline realizes the originally ticketed passenger hadn’t shown up to use it, it would have been sold a second time to a stand-by.

    That’s the real reason why they’re usually not so flexible if a ticket can’t be used by the original party.

  • Joe

    You mean, like airlines already do? Gasp!

  • LeeAnneClark

    If you click the link right there in the story, your question is answered.

  • MarkKelling

    Great Delta was willing to work with them.

    But, what policy if any, did Delta bend? They refunded a ticket for a deceased passenger. That is exactly what their COC says they will do.

    They sold another new ticket to another passenger that was taking the place of the deceased passenger. They did it at the price the original ticket was for which was unexpected. I know the TAs will argue this one, but the airline can make any fare available to anyone at any time they choose. So hooray for Delta for doing so here.

    If Delta would not have done what they did, the entire group may have cancelled their flights and received refunds which is allowed. So by not charging more for the new ticket, Delta actually lost less.

    The good PR from this one is welcome.

  • MarkKelling

    But there is no guarantee that an empty seat can be filled by a standby or last minute purchaser. Reselling the ticket to the new guaranteed passenger was less risky.

  • An Even Newer Alan Gore

    I’m wondering who the Nos in that poll response were. How does a stone pump blood, anyway?

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    Wonderful,

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    It’s merely a cash generator, there’s no other reason for the horrible change fees now charged by most airlines. Everyone benefits from these fees except the passenger.

  • Molly

    Seventeen people have voted “No”??!! Seriously? May you never know the pain of having a child seriously ill/injured, much less dying.
    Such a shame “people” exist who jump onto boards and vote the nastiest way possible. Who are you? Own up to your vote and take the heat.

  • Kairho

    It’s not the cost of changing the name (heck, that takes about 60 seconds). Rather, for one reason, it’s because of the auction format airlines use, increasing the cost of a seat as time gets closer to the flight day. Think scalping.

    Before name change fees, people would purchase really cheap tickets almost a year in advance, hold them until a short time before the flight (when the airline price was now higher), and then sell them at a profit but below the airline price. This could be done because it cost little or nothing to change a name.

    But like sports arenas and concert halls, the airlines didn’t like leaving money on the table nor having unauthorized people profiting (and maybe even scamming) from their product. So they effectively prohibited the practice initially by having change fees and later prohibited the practice. Yes, this burned the legitimate and casual name changes as well but there’s always collateral damage in battle.

  • BillCCC

    So it did not actually cost Delta anything to change the name.

  • bodega3

    It did cost time and labor.
    Kindness by the carriers isn’t new. I have had many cases of the airlines coming through for passengers. We just hear the negatives more.

  • Kurt Akemann

    On this one, Delta did the right thing for the right reason. Well done, Delta.

  • Annie M

    What a great story. Sometimes all it takes is getting the right person on the phone and being nice to them. What a compassionate Delta rep!

  • kent

    First of all, this story breaks my heart. So incredibly sad for the Heitzig family. Delta did the right thing in making this change. Amongst the heartlessness that usually characterizes corporate America, this is a great exception to their policy.

  • pauletteb

    Not bad, as of my reading, only 20 “No” trolls under the bridge. Good for Delta!

  • bayareascott

    Putting a standby customer in the seat is NOT the same as selling the ticket again.

  • BMG4ME

    I do find Delta to be quite flexible.

  • Three Phased

    How does it differ? (Except perhaps for that the standby customer doesn’t pay as much as the ticket cost the first time?)

  • bayareascott

    Your parenthetical question is the issue. People do not buy “standby tickets”. This is something that existed decades ago. A customer on standby is someone who purchased a ticket for another flight and is simply changing flights. Moving people around isn’t the same as reselling the seat. It is just a seat on a different flight that has opened. It is extremely unlikely to be resold, especially on the day of departure.

We want your feedback. Your opinion is important to us. Here's how you can share your thoughts:
  • Send us a letter to the editor. We'll publish your most thoughtful missives in our daily newsletter or in an upcoming post.
  • Leave a message on one of our social networks. We have an active Facebook page, a LinkedIn presence and a Twitter account. Every story on this site is posted on those channels. The conversation ranges from completely unmoderated (Twitter) to moderated (Facebook and LinkedIn).
  • Post a question to our help forums or ask our advocates for a hand through our assistance intake form. Please note that our help forum is not a place for debate. It's there primarily to assist readers with a consumer problem.
  • If you have a news tip or want to report an error or omission, you can email the site publisher directly. You may also contact the post's author directly. Contact information is in the author tagline.