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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.