What’s the correct compensation for this Delta flight delay?

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By Christopher Elliott

John Esser’s recent return flight north “headed south,” so to speak. He’d like Delta Air Lines to make things right.

But what’s right?

Esser was flying from Los Angeles to Detroit on Delta flight 1806 on Sept. 18.

“This flight was specifically chosen due to an obligation I had that evening at my son’s school at 7 p.m.,” he says.

Needless to say, he didn’t make it.

Although the flight was scheduled to leave at 9:30 a.m., a series of mechanical delays kept the plane waiting at the gate several hours before it was finally canceled.

“At around 11 a.m., I was allowed to leave the plane in order to get some food and a drink,” he says. “No one from Delta had offered food or water, because apparently they don’t serve customers while sitting at a gate.”

Delta finally herded the passengers off the plane and tried to reroute them.

“The quickest I could get to Detroit was to reroute to San Francisco, leaving at 7 p.m., arriving around 8:00 p.m. From there, the next direct flight wasn’t scheduled to fly out of San Francisco until 10:35 p.m., arriving in Detroit at 6:10 a.m.,” he says.

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That meant he missed the school event, plus a meeting at work the next morning — not ideal.

Esser complained to Delta in writing after his 17-hour delay.

The airline’s response?

A form letter

I apologize for the hassle you experience (sic) due to our flight interruption.

Feedback like yours will help us improve our overall customer experience; we appreciate the time you took to write. I will be sharing your remarks with our Airport Customer Service leadership team for internal follow up.

Delta had already issued a $50 voucher on the day he traveled, but “as a gesture of goodwill” it added another $75 certificate. (Related: Hey Delta, how about a refund on those outrageous ticket change fees?)

“My round trip ticket was $1,320,” he says. “I was expecting $660, or half.”

Unrealistic? Perhaps.

But here’s something I don’t understand. How can an airline advertise a flight that leaves at 9:30 a.m. and then get you to your destination almost a full day later. I mean, I realize Delta’s contract of carriage says it can do it because it says it can, and that’s pretty much the end of the story.

But 17 hours? C’mon.

Esser was shortchanged

Esser could have asked for, and received, a full refund for his ticket and taken his chances on another carrier. But that’s also impractical. Airlines mark up their fares for last-minute travelers, often incorrectly assuming they’re business travelers on an unlimited expense account.

I think this is one of those times that common-sense regulation might be useful. If you refund a flight, then you should pay back the fair market value of the ticket at that time, so that the passenger can buy a ticket on another airline. The alternative is that Delta could have endorsed his ticket to another airline, allowing it to possibly negotiate a better fare for itself.

Do I think Esser was shortchanged? Yes.

Do I think he has a case? Maybe, maybe not.

Certainly, he can contact the higher-ups at Delta, asking for more. Too bad he wasn’t flying to Europe, where EU 261 would have protected him. (Here’s what you need to know about the EC 261 and European air travel rights.)

I can also get involved, but I’m fairly certain that I know what my airline contacts will say. You probably do, too.

But I tilt at windmills so often — what’s one more?

Should I mediate John Esser's case?

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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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