Not Even a Free Sandwich, Delta? Really?
“Force majeure:” (/fôrs mäZHər/): a natural and unavoidable catastrophe that interrupts the expected course of events; irresistible compulsion or superior strength; act of god. In other words: “Your flight just got canceled.”
Having spent four days in Nashville for IBM's most recent Smarter Commerce Global Summit, I'd filed my copy, eaten my free meals, and packed my bags. I was ready to go home. With a few hours to kill before heading to the airport, I dropped my case with the bellhop and went for a bite at one of the hotel restaurants.
A man sitting near me started a conversation. “You with the conference?” he asked.
I said “yes,” and he said so was he. The man had hours to kill, he said. His flight back to Newark that night had been majorly delayed because of some thunderstorms up east. “You're flying out tonight, too?” he said. “Well then, I'd recommend checking the status of that flight. I really would.”
So I did. I went to flightstats.com and there it was in blaring red: CANCELLED.
OK, no worries. First thing I did was find a number for my carrier, Delta. Wait time: 30 to 55 minutes. It took about 40 minutes to get someone and when I did, the news wasn't what I wanted to hear.
“Hi there. I'm booked on Flight 4974 from Nashville to New York at 6:25 tonight, but I checked online and it seems like it's canceled. Can you tell me what my options are?”
There was a slight pause as my rep confirmed my information, and then the fun began.
“Hmmm, well. It seems like there's nothing from Nashville into LaGuardia before...let me see here...before Saturday,” he said.
“Saturday?” I was stunned. “But, it's Thursday.”
“I'm sorry ma'am, that's all I'm showing.”
I swallowed the “ma'am” reference and tried to think on my feet. “Is there anything into JFK?”
(tap, tap, tap) “Sorry, nothing into JFK.”
“No, sorry, nothing there either.”
Nada. It was either wait two days to fly home or take the Greyhound. Now, I know it's not the Delta customer service guy's fault there was severe weather in the Northeast, but I did find it odd he'd be so blasé about passing along the news that a customer was about to experience a nearly 40-hour delay—because the flight cancellation wasn't my fault either.
“What about a hotel? Or food? Now I'm stuck in Nashville for two more days?” My tone may or may not have become a bit acerbic by this point.
“We apologize for the inconvenience ma'am, but this is a case of weather, so we don't provide hotels or vouchers when that happens,” he said. “Sorry, it's just...weather.”
According to Delta's version of Rule 240, the airliner contract of carriage, if a flight is delayed or canceled due to a “force majeure” event, Delta is only required to refund passengers with the price of the ticket in question. Delta will most likely try to reroute you, but it doesn't actually have to do anything.
Delta defines force majeure as anything “not foreseen” by the airline, including “acts of God, civil commotion, wars, hostilities, strikes, labor-related disputes, government regulation, shortage of labor or fuel,” and, of course, weather.
I can accept all that. Delta can't manufacture seats out of nowhere. But I do think stranded fliers deserve a little more than a shrug and a “sorry ma'am” after a serious disruption in travel plans. Weather may be weather, but customer service is also customer service—and the two shouldn't be mutually exclusive. It was a topic very much on my mind having just left a global summit dedicated to the subject of putting customers first.
It really doesn't take that much to make someone feel taken care of. I'm not suggesting Delta or other airlines pay for deluxe hotel rooms and room service every time a flight is grounded, but I also don't think customers should be fobbed off with “Sorry, it's just...weather.”
Why doesn't Delta maintain relationships with local hotels in the cities it services? Then, when “weather” strikes and flights get delayed or canceled, customer service reps could give harried callers special promo codes for discounts on their stay. Same for local restaurants. And what about creating a nice little landing page, something like delta.com/weather, that clearly explains what to do in case of a weather-related cancellation. Even the tiniest token would have been appreciated. Let's just say I wouldn't have turned down a voucher for a free in-flight sandwich, for example.
In the end, IBM graciously covered the expense of two extra nights in the hotel, and I was traveling on business, so food was taken care of. But that's certainly not the case for everyone. Airline travel is an extremely competitive industry, and in this traveler's humble opinion, a less stringent weather policy would go a long way as a differentiator.
After my two-day delay in Nashville, I finally found myself at the airport using the self check-in machine. I tapped in my name and flight info and a lightbox popped up asking me if I'd be willing to give up my seat and take a later flight. I gaped at the screen for a moment and then tapped the “NO” button (rather vigorously).
Fat chance. Not unless Delta wanted another force majeure event on its hands.