Q: How hard can it be to spend $150?

A: When it comes to those wacky guys running the airlines, harder than you might think! In fact, sometimes it’s downright impossible.

I’ve spent the last two months trying to give Delta and its partner KLM $150 for a slightly more comfortable seat on my upcoming trip to Europe this Monday. I bought a Delta ticket, but the flight is actually running on KLM’s airplane, using something called a “code share” – where aligned airlines can sell each other’s flights and call them their own.

That seat, called “economy comfort”, offers a small amount more space, and recline than the standard economy seat, which makes it worthwhile for a 10 hour trip from LA to Amsterdam. According to KLM’s website, and every KLM person I talked to, Economy Comfort seats are available to any economy passenger, first come, first serve – as long as they pay for it.

Yet after countless discussions with ticket agents, tech support people and our own clueless Expedia corporate travel reps, for me and many others, apparently, this is a seat too far.

It’s also an international seat of mystery. In my quest to purchase this product, I was first told, by Delta in late August that I could do it at the airport. So a week later I checked in with Delta, and their ticket rep pointed me to KLM.

KLM’s ticket representative, at ticket counter 9-2 inside San Francisco’s airport, sent me back to Delta – who then told me that it was easy to do on KLM’s website.

And yes, it was easy – up to a point. I could easily select the seat that I wanted (12A, if you’re curious). But then as I tried to purchase it, I got the following message “We are sorry but due to a technical error, you cannot select a seat at the moment. Please try again later”

Delta Hell

So I did try later. I tried about 10 times over the course of two weeks. Finally, I reached out to KLM tech support to figure out what this “technical error” was all about. Their tech support person was quite clear – she said that Delta would need to rewrite the ticket from Delta ticket stock to KLM ticket stock for it to work.

Back on the phone with Delta, they said no, that KLM would have to rewrite the ticket, as they did not have “access” to it (which is interesting, because it’s very clearly a Delta ticket). Back on the phone with KLM – and this time I had to call directly to Amsterdam, because Delta handles KLM in the US, and they are equally as clueless. I talked with Ralph Love, a very nice agent, who said that after a lot of back and forth  that it wasn’t about the ticket, as “anyone can book the seat even if the ticket is not issued”. His solution was that Delta needed to change the flight number on my record from the Delta flight to KLM’s flight.

Delta happily obliged, yet I still ended up with the same “technical error”. And here’s where the story takes a Gallic twist. According to yet another KLM agent I reached after another international call, for some reason Air France now “owned” my ticket, which was why neither KLM nor Delta could change it. I’m flying back from Europe on an Air France code-share, and they changed the flight, rewrote the ticket, and now no one else can touch it.

Oh, and after all of that, on Tuesday I finally got an email back from Annemieke Meijer at KLM, in response to a message I sent to customer support more than a month ago. It reads, in part:

Due to unforeseen circumstances, we were unable to answer your inquiry in time. Please accept our apologies. We hope that you have received an answer in the meantime.

And directs me back to their Netherlands phone number for support.

No, Annemieke, I have not received an answer, and I have not figured out how to give you money.  I’ve tried and tried, been obfuscated and misled, and in the end, I’m going to be stuck in a horrible middle seat for 10 hours during which I really ought to be sleeping. I’m not happy about that, but I’m even more fascinated by the fact that I have $150 that I want to give to a company, yet they won’t take my money – even though clearly others have been able to purchase these same seats, as many of them are gone now.

I understand that airline reservations systems are complex things. And I understand that integrating them together is never easy. But I cannot accept a practice that offers a product to a certain class of customer – and denies it to another, based upon their situational circumstances.

That’s a classic case of retail discrimination. I’d consider suing someone for damages, if I had a clue as to who was culpable!

Instead, I’m stuck in Delta Hell, with no recourse. And that’s a frustrating, and ultimately painful thing.


Scott Snider November 5, 2010

Welcome to my world.

Every try to use a Delta System Wide upgrade certificate? They are practically useless with all the restrictions they put on them. Their Frequent Flyer program looks great on paper but that is only because they do not include the reams of fine print.

unclesmelly November 6, 2010

It sounds like you have put yourself through more than ten hours of hell to avoid 10 hours of hell.

sharon duguid November 8, 2010

Hi…. I have gone through several Delta Hell’s. After one particularly bad experience, with equal astonishment and shock at how I was treated, I FINALLY demanded to speak to the most senior person in Delta – the CEO. I left a long message with him (as well as all the referenced people I had been in touch with), and was put to the Director of Customer Service. She researched my story, was appalled, refunded me, gave me lots of placating goodies, and sadly one Delta agent is now without a job as a result. Go to the top, and go public. My story happened to be semi-documented with a photo that had been taken and caught, and ended up in the New York TImes cover page of the travel section. Delta had not seen it and was nailed hard by bad press. Your story should make good fodder for the press. Try the Ombudsman in Traveller magazine too.

Dave November 26, 2010

Delta is no worse then the rest (no better either)
Southwest, I couldn’t buy a ticket AT THE AIRPORT. I had to call them up (from the airport) or use the website to buy a ticket.

United I’ve had the worse luck with (rather have a mule team drag around the country by my delicates then fly them again)

CB January 9, 2011

I so feel your pain. I agree totally with you. The airlines are becoming people like the insurance companies or maybe even the banks or maybe even our government.
The bottom line is most airline agents have not been trained properly to represent you as a customer. But between the back and forth you got you deserve a medal.

I suggest to you that YOU find a really good travel agent, since it sounds like you fly a lot. They act as the mediator between you and the airlines. And the better they are the better your success rate will be with the airlines. If you find a good travel agent it will be like finding a Great Dr or a Great dentist, lawyer, etc. With mergers and code sharing the industry is not on top of its game. Save your sanity and get a good travel agent. Talk around and I bet you will find a good one. Meanwhile, let the airlines fight it out amongst themselves, because that is where some of the problems lies.

Maybe you might think they cost more. WRONG. For the fee they charge they can get you the best of the deals and seats too.They can arrange any thing else you need. And in the meantime, take my advice and you’ll live a happier and more peaceful life especially if you are one of those people who live on airplanes. I am so sorry that you have such a terrible story. But I applaud you for sharing your experience with all of us.Thank you. Most people who are mad walk away angry and know there’s no chance they will hear back with good news. Travel safe…..

Disclaimer: I do not work for or never have been a travel agent.1/9/2011

Marion Daoud August 11, 2011

I’m delighted that I found this blog. Finally a worth while site, which we can come back to frequently. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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