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

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By Christopher Elliott

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.

Delta’s delay drama

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. (Related: Denied boarding by Delta Air Lines twice — can you help me get a refund?)

“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:

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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.

Delta’s lackluster letters

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. (Here’s our guide to booking an airline ticket.)

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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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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