Here’s Why Richard Branson Should Be Delta Airlines’ Biggest Fan

Last week, Passenger X arrived at the Orlando airport with a first-class e-ticket for New York City. At the airport, the ticket machine spat out a boarding pass for a seat in the back of coach. Why?

The plane, he was told, had been “downsized” from a large jet to a smaller one. There was no first-class section on the smaller plane, so all first-class passengers had been reassigned to coach.

Passenger X asked the Delta agent why the change had been made.

“Mechanical,” he was told.

Passenger X then asked when the change had been made, and wondered why Delta hadn’t phoned or e-mailed to alert passengers to the change — which would have given them time to perhaps fly first-class on a different airline.

The Delta agent responded that she did not know when the change had been made.

Passenger X flies frequently and tries to get work done on planes, so a first-class seat is far more desirable to him than a coach seat. He was disappointed with Delta’s change, but if they’d pulled a faulty jet out of the air — well, plainly, that was a good thing.

Once past security, he asked another Delta representative about the change. This agent, too, did not know when the plane swap had been made, but agreed that Delta should have alerted its first-class passengers. “You paid for the steak but you got the hamburger,” he said. This agent couldn’t have been kinder. He even offered to give Passenger X the customer service number at Delta so that he could arrange for a refund of the difference between the first-class fare and the coach fare.

To which Passenger X said: “Thank you, and no offense, but I’d be surprised — and further disappointed — if you weren’t already doing that on your own.” In other words, should the customer who pays for the steak and gets the hamburger then have to go scrambling himself to recover the price differential?

The Delta agent, still kind, acknowledged that yes, this too was not great Delta policy, but it was the best he could do.

At the gate, a third Delta agent, perhaps even kinder than the first two, looked at Passenger X’s boarding pass and offered to put an empty seat beside him. Very thoughtful! As it turned out, this was a pretty easy task, since the plane was only about 40 percent full, which made Passenger X wonder if the first Delta agent’s story — that the original plane was pulled for “mechanical” reasons — was even true. If the smaller plane was only 40 percent full, then the larger plane was probably only 20 percent full. As such, was it possible that Delta had changed planes because of an economic reason, and not a mechanical one?

Passenger X inquired as to this possibility, and was greeted with blank stares. He did learn, however, that the flight attendants had just flown down on this same plane, from New York to Orlando. At the very least, this meant that the smaller plane had been in service for quite a few hours, certainly enough time for Delta to let its first-class passengers know that their steak was now a hamburger.

In the end, the flight was fine. Two seats in coach are just as good as one seat in first class. But if it had been a jammed-to-the-roof flight, Passenger X would have been one sad puppy.

I can confirm Passenger X’s story because Passenger X is me. Let’s rehearse what happened here:

1. Delta sold a premium good to a customer, then exchanged it, unannounced, for a standard good.

2. Delta stated that it did this because the premium good was damaged, or unsafe; but the observable evidence suggests that this may not in fact have been the case.

3. Delta left the responsibility of getting a refund to the customer.

What should the customer do in this case?

I will do my best to avoid flying Delta in the short term and possibly the long term. What’s interesting to note is that the Delta employees in the airport were all as helpful as could be, but they were all hamstrung by company policy that they couldn’t control.

What does this suggest about the state of the U.S. airline industry?

It’s probably not a good idea for airline companies to alienate their few premium-paying customers, since those tickets help subsidize the very low cost of the standard ticket. I am guessing that the rush-to-the-bottom on airline ticket prices is the reason that so many people find airline travel so unappealing these days: people want cheap tickets — a coach ticket from New York to Orlando is probably cheaper than the cost of gas you’d need to make that trip by car — and they get the level of service that those tickets can buy.

Stories like this one are very good news, however, if you are in the VLJ (very light jet) business, since that is where business travelers are moving. It could also be good news for Richard Branson, who is on an all-business-class binge at the moment, and is rumored to be thinking about offering all-business-class flights in the U.S., the absence of which I have wondered about before on this blog.

For the record, let me say that as much as any of us may complain about airline travel –whether it’s sitting on a tarmac for hours or getting downgraded to coach — I still think the whole thing is a miracle.

Mr Eugenides

What this story suggests to me, Stephen, is that if you habitually fly first class, clearly we all paid too much for your book... ;-)


It's not a miracle- the US Airline Industry is one of the longest denizens of Corporate Welfare in this country, heavily subsidized by Uncle Sam and consistently bailed out in economic downturns. Because... apparently... there's some military application to having a fleet of passenger jets in the US... just like there's some military application to the US Interstate system.

Face it- if Libertarianism was the divining philosophy for this nation, there would be no airline industry and no interstate.


Delta should probably assign some of those Six Sigma black belts they payed all the trainng money for to process improvent projects in customer service.
Oh wait - Delta sucks for 'professional' employees too so once they get the Six Sigma cert on the resume they jump ship.
Don't know if you live in NY, CT or NJ, but Jet Blue flys direct to Florida out of Stewart in Newburgh and I'm told you can't beat it. Something to consider if you value hassle free traffic, parking and boarding over first class seating.


About 10 years ago, I had to fly to the west coast with a colleague of mine from a different company. His company paid for a first class ticket, but when he checked in he learned that first class was overbooked and he was told to stand by until everyone had boarded. He did, and then they told him he was being moved to coach, but that they would ensure the seat next to him was open. As he boarded, they gate checked his carry-on (only luggage for this short trip) since all the overhead compartments were full. He took his seat...they had lied about the seat next to him being full. To add insult to injury, when we arrived at our destination they had lost his gate-checked carry on bag. Somehow, it didn't get on our flight to San Francisco and wound up in San Diego. So, American Airlines: 1) bumped him from 1st class to coach, 2) lied about the seat next to him being open, and 3) lost his carry-on bag. Flying is a hassle. Ya really gotta havta do it.



Air Canada pulls this crap all the time. One flight boarded at the normal time, everyone got on (the pretty empty plane) and they closed the doors. They left us sitting at the gate for one hour claiming that they had to fix a brake issue and that we'd be able to take off at 9:45 (for an 8:10 flight). At 9:40, they open the door and let about 40 more passengers on and we take off. Turns out those passengers were from another empty flight. If they just made the announcement, "In order to offer reasonable priced service we regret we have to merge these two flights" I wouldn't care. Do they think that their customers are too dumb to figure out what is going on.

David Glover

I believe our experiences are closely tied to managing expectations. Getting less than you expect = unhappiness. Getting more than you expect = happiness. How impressive it would it be if they would create these systems . I like Southwest mainly because I know what to expect, and they deliver.


I think UNited might be the worst actually. I flew on a 747 on the way home from vacation earlier this year on a Sydney - Los Angeles flight. We had a 14 hour flight time alloted. United held oour plane at the gate for over an hour so that passengers from another flight that was delayed would be able to make it on. I didn't have a problem with this off the bat. However, once in the air the pilots refused to hit the gas and make up any lost time (this burns more fuel and costs United more money). Our plane arrived close to 2 hours late and easily over 100 people missed their connecting flights. I have never in my life seen a longer line of pissed off passengers. You'd think there would be a bit of an effort on behalf of the airline to look into what passengers might be displaced on the other end of the flight. If you hold a plane for 50 passengers and 120 miss their flights after landing (and you don't make up time - easy to do on a trans-pacific flight) I don't think you've done your passengers a service.


Shane Killian

Silvanus: I agree and disagree.

I agree that corporate welfare is a big problem. It seems like every few years Congress is giving them another several billion dollars to bail them out. I often wonder how much better their service would be if that didn't happen?

But I disagree that there would be no airline industry otherwise. It wouldn't be what it is now, but I'd bet we'd still have flights that people can buy seats on, the level of service would be much better, and the price might not even be all that much more expensive.


"It's probably not a good idea for airline companies to alienate their few premium-paying customers." In particular, one would think, the ones who write for the Times.

Bruce Hayden

I do think that it is a miracle too. I remember my first airline flight, from Denver to Colo. Spgs. and back in approx. 1960. And then, I got to fly by jet to NYC in about 1964 or 1965. And since then, I have had years where I flew 75 segments.

But it sure does seem like some of the airlines go out of their way to cut the wrong corners to save money.

I am flying from Denver to Reno today on United. We now have SW, but it doesn't fly direct, and Frontier just pulled out of Reno. Up to about 5 years ago, I was flying them 50-60 segments a year, had a special Premier Exec phone number, etc. But I haven't flown them since, since Frontier and SW are so much better.

So, when I called up the reservation line, I got the same sort of voice recognition jungle that I get when dealing with HP for computers, with what seemed like a half a dozen levels where I had to say what I wanted. And, no doubt, if Stephen had been flying on United instead of Delta, he would have had to wade through that to get his refund.

It is aggravating as all heck and a major waste of my time. So, a couple hours later I had to change the first name on a reservation I made for someone on SW. And guess what? A real person after one ring who was extraordinarily helpful, having apparently made this exact change for others on multiple occasions. He even was able to put her frequent flying number in the record based on her phone number and city.

So, United saves a couple dollars in reservationist costs, at a cost in significantly increased frustration and ultimately lower patronage, and Delta does the same by switching out lightly loaded planes for smaller ones, depriving Stephen of his first class seat.



My second most favorite travel tale was being on a train either coming or going from NJ (I don't remember which), and it backing up about a mile to pick up 2 people who missed the train, because they couldn't wait 30 minutes for the next one. Why would anyone expect that kind of special treatment, and what idiot agrees to back up a loaded commuter train for 2 people...


I realize that most of us are in favor of free markets but didn't most of the problems with our airline industry begin with deregulation?


You experienced another manifestation of what has been very obvious for a long time. Airlines knowingly offer many more flights in time slots which are mathematically impossible to uphold even in a perfect air traffic situation, as FAA rules set an upper limit to the traffic. Thus, they know, a priori, that they will consolidate (ie, cancel) flights, and use the famous weather/equipment/crew excuse. They are selling a product without inventory to back it up, very simply.


Adding to #6's comments about expectations-

I was thinking about this fact just the other day! I realized I had stupidly locked myself out of my apartment when I went on my morning jog at around 8:45, and was panicked because I had to get to a job processing appt by around 9:30. I called a locksmith from a local coffee shop at 8:50, and they assured me they would hurry. First, they called at 9:10 to say it would be 20 minutes. I was happy, because this meant I wouldn't be extremely late for my appt. Then they called at 9:30 to say it would be 20 more minutes. This continued a few more times until finally, the locksmith arrived at 10:30 by which time I was livid.

If they had told me from the start, it will be about an hour and a half, I would have been sad about being late, but would have accepted the situation. But because they kept dangling the false hope that I would very soon be able to get into my apartment and on my way again, they made me into an extremely angry customer. Which when you think about it, I shouldn't have been, since it was my own fault I was locked out. They just made the mistake of keeping my expectations high, and then failing to meet them.



As a previous commenter said, Air Canada pulls this crap all the time. Some Americans like to gush about all things Canadian, but don't believe anything positive about Air Canada.

My experience was similar to Dubner's in that they switched planes. In my case that left the flight 50% overbooked. Apparently the switch was made some weeks in advance (as confirmed by colleagues who booked later than I did), but we weren't told that we would be bumped until we arrived at the airport.

My guess is that it's related to competition. If you live in Canada, it's hard to avoid Air Canada. So swearing never to fly the crappiest airline in the Western world isn't credible.


While I do sympathize with your situation, I find myself a bit gleeful about the whole thing. You are in a position to publicize your story to millions of people. Those of us who read your blog have been in the same situations if not worse...being stranded on our layovers for no apparent reasons missing meaningful family and personal events. You have just influenced people to think twice about buying a flight from delta. Bravo thanks for sharing your pain and doing a little to help the little guys. I would love to say the airlines will take notice but I have little faith in their empathy skills.


I have flown most of the airlines in the US. I have seen it all, from being stuck in Detroit for 12 hours trying to get to Pittsburgh on a clear day (Northwest); to waiting at the ticket counter for 2 hours because the only employee happened to be one that still had not finished training, but for some reason was left in charge (US Airways).

For these reasons I have begun flying Southwest as often as possible. What makes Southwest so much better? They attempt to have the most efficient business model in the industry by doing the following:
- 1 model of aircraft (Boeing 737) results in lower training and maintenance costs
- "Point to Point" flying rather than the hub system
- Flying to smaller airports instead of the expensive hubs
- Pilots do their own math rather than waiting on the tarmac and relying on the tower for a routine calculation
- Pilots that use their day off to interview new employees

The list goes on and on. Point is, when you fly Southwest you know what you are getting. A cheap flight that will be on time. Sorry Stephen, this doesn't do much to solve your problem since they do not have first class.



maybe i am the exception to the rule, but i have never had problems with flights. a couple of delays (but nothing more than an hour, really) and there were two times something almost but didn't go wrong.

almost all of my flights have been on air canada, between toronto and boston, at least a dozen in the past two years. not huge numbers of flights, but still plenty enough to be likely to experience some sort of airline BS... my two close calls: [1] the plane was chanced, and my seat was lost in the shuffle for a while, but i got it in the end (i was regular class, so no class-swapping issues). [2] i was going to fly from boston to ottawa to toronto (cheaper at the time), and there was expected bad weather. i went to the counter, was put on an earlier direct flight to toronto, and made it to my destination before i was reguarly sheduled to leave... i say this was a close call because i think some leg of the later flights was going to be canceled due to weather issues, and by sheer luck, i made it to the airport early and was able to get switched instead of stuck in logan...

my one flight-pair in this time in only the US was between portland, maine and DC national. got to dc fine, and from dc to portland was an hour delay. annoying, but nothing worse than expected.



I am surprised there was no compensation.


Bad service is not limited to the US airlines. British Airways (BA) once closed a route for which I had booked a trip. Instead of calling me, they sent me an email asking me to phone them instead. They informed me of the closure and as they were unable to find me an alternative route with any of their partners, they just gave me a refund.

I had another flight from NY to London also with BA to connect to the now closed flight (different tickets, they weren't part of the same booking). As I was in the phone complaining about it (flight was for Christmas Eve), I was trying to find an alternative flight which I luckily did at an extra cost of over $200. But I needed to change the time of the NY-London BA flight to be able to connect to the newly booked flight. First, the guy in the UK said he couldn't help and asked me to call their US Customer Center (what about global companies?). Once done, they charged me an extra $100 for changing the flight despite the reason behind it being their cancellation. Their explanation: two separate bookings are two different contracts.

I was a loyal BA customer (many miles collected) and the whole route closure cost me over $400. I complained several times asking for compensation without success.

I don't fly BA any longer, and I do it now with one of their main competitors Virgin. BA has lost thousands and thousands of dollars with me, just to save a few hundreds. Stupidity is what I call this strategy solely focused on cost cutting.