Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dear Delta/Northwest, you almost ruined my engagement party

As many of you now know, both my fiancé and father were missing for our engagement party due to Delta/Northwest's complete incompetence. There are not enough appropriate words to accurately describe such a completely disgusting failure. Below is the letter I sent them this morning. I am hoping for something other than the canned responses I've gotten so far.

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Dear Mr. Anderson, Mr. Bastian, customer care representatives, et al.,

I have spent a good week mulling over this letter; it has taken me awhile to calm down. I am writing this for myself and on behalf of my fiancé, Philip, who literally does not have time to write. I do hope you'll give me the courtesy and respect of reading this entire letter, which might be a bit long because I want to make sure that I paint an accurate picture of how completely, utterly and abominably Delta/Northwest Airlines failed last Saturday the 11th of July, also known as the date of my engagement party....

Here's a snapshot of 7 p.m. Saturday night:
Here you are at the home of one of my mom's closest friends, a lady who's graciously agreed to host 125 plus guests who will be coming to toast the engagement of me to a boy named Philip that I used to chase on the playground in elementary school (and who I finally caught 20 years later at a mutual friend's wedding!): It's a hazy night, but not unpleasant. Come on in, we will shake your hand and offer you a glass of wine or maybe a beer to go with some homemade cheese straws. Philip's parents are there; they arrived a day early. They haven't seen their youngest son in seven months, since the few days over Christmas when he got engaged. They had hoped to spend the afternoon with him when his plane got in at 1:19 in the afternoon. That hope has long been dashed. Next to Philip's parents is his grandmother Betty. She's one of those ladies that's often referred to as a pistol (and will not brook being called grandma, granny or any variation of that nature). She's the only grandparent left in either family. She also hasn't seen Philip for seven months. Prior to that, she last saw him at the August wedding of Philip's brother. She gave Philip the diamond from her engagement ring for Philip to have set in a ring that he would present to me in December on the aforementioned playground of the elementary school where I used to chase him. Milling about are some of Philip's closest friends most of whom, due to the nature of being a surgical resident at The Mayo Clinic, he hasn't seen in a year or more. I think by now you are getting the picture and can probably paint the next bit yourself. In short, all of those near and dear to Philip are at the party. There are two important people that are not at that party, not shaking hands, hugging old friends, doting on grandma and regaling people with stories. One is THE FIANCÉ. The other person is THE FATHER OF THE BRIDE.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. In an attempt to make the best of the situation and to try to avoid people feeling sorry for me, I fashion a cardboard Philip (appended to email and attached within email body). People love it. But I can tell you that it makes a poor substitute for having my future husband next to me, in the flesh.

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Now, let's rewind all the way back to 4:30 a.m. that Saturday morning, 873 miles back to Rochester, MN:
It's still dark when Philip gets up to prepare for his 6:40 a.m. flight to Huntsville, AL from Rochester, MN. He's had about three hours of sleep, which is actually pretty good. He spent Friday trying to wrap up loose ends, get patients home. He's on what is almost inarguably considered the toughest rotation he'll encounter during his 5 year residency program. The surgery is hard, and the surgeon is of world renown only superseded by his even more legendary temper. To say it is a stressful time for Philip wouldn't even come close to accurately assessing it. There are good surgeons that rotate in under the legendary doctor that have had to take beta blockers, even anti anxiety meds to still their hands. Philip hasn't had a single day off in more than a month. Most days, he rises at 4 am. Some days it's earlier. He does this 7 days a week. He is on call, too. So there are lots of times that those few hour of sleep are repeatedly interrupted. To sum up, Philip is tired. He's been tired for most of the past 4 years and expects to be tired for a good 10 more. He would never tell this to me, but I know: he's probably looking forward to sleeping in on Sunday as much as anything else on this one weekend off. Philip had previously scheduled a flight on a different airline that left later (so he could get more sleep), but also arrived later. We were afraid to take that chance, so, he shelled out $600 bucks of money he doesn't have in an attempt to play it safe by leaving at 6:40 am on a flight scheduled to arrive in our hometown at 1:19 p.m. He'd have plenty of time in case a flight was delayed or, better yet, he'd have time to spend with his family. This is the point where you cue the maniacal laughter of Foreshadowing and Irony, giggling in cahoots together about what happens next.

The truth is, had Philip gotten into his car that morning instead of on your airplane, he would have spent that 14 hour drive listening to music and mainlining caffeine. He would have arrived in Alabama with an hour to spare, at 1/6 the cost of your $600 dollar flight and with none of the ensuing mental chaos and upset your airline caused. Now we get to the meat of the story, the part where your airline so egregiously failed in its duties, the part that left my fiancé stuck in Detroit and me shaking the hands of his family friends and making jokes about a cardboard cutout with a picture of Philip's face taped to it.

Philip arrived promptly at the airport and boarded his first flight. They taxied to the runway, ready to take off. Then they stopped. They waited there for an hour (apparently due to weather conditions. And yes, we all know that the airlines take no responsibility for weather. But trust me, if that had been the only occurrence, I wouldn't be writing this letter, because I would know it would be pointless). Philip called me to tell me what was going on, and I told him to remain calm. Lucky for us, he had all that free time built in, and was still on time to make his next flight. Nobody was panicking or upset yet. After about 45 minutes on the runway, the plane was able to take off. It arrived in Detroit. Now we've arrived at the part of the story where everything from here on out, as far as I can figure, is your fault. There's no weather issue or unforeseeable acts of nature here, this is pure, unadulterated incompetence at its finest.

Upon arrival in Detroit, Philip had a good 20 minutes to catch his next flight. He's a former collegiate long distance runner, so I can guarantee you he would have made that plane. Everything would've been gravy, but apparently the jet way operator did not know how to operate the jet way. The passengers were unable to deplane for another 15 minutes while the jet way operator tried to line up the jet way and the airplane. I don't really know how to be polite about this, so I'm not going to go into it much. Suffice it to say that if someone is having trouble operating a metal drawbridge with a joystick in it, they should probably not be around engineered steel tubes that 150 plus people trust their lives to for hours each day. Philip had five minutes, but he gave it a good college try. He arrived at the next gate to witness the sort of moment you often see in the movies: the plane taxiing down the runway. It could've only been made more perfect if he had put his hand up to the window and screamed "Noooooooooooooooo!" in some sort of airport rendition of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. Elaine!

The next time I talked to him, he was starting to panic a little bit and he was very flustered. It's pretty hard to get him riled up, so I was curious about what happened after the plane left without him:
Philip stood in line to talk to the ticketing agent and see what he should do next. There were two people in front of him. At the gate next to him was another flight that was leaving for Atlanta (his next destination, originally) in the next half hour. Well, you can probably guess what happened. The two people in front of him and the one ticket agent took 45 minutes to sort their business out. At one point during that time, the ticket agent left to go to another counter and didn't return for 15 minutes. No one took her place. Philip was standing in line as the plane the next gate over boarded and left. Once he got up to the counter, the ticketing agent (whose name I truly wish I could provide you with) said she was going to take her break despite the line of people behind Philip and despite the fact that one might argue that due to the amount of text messaging she'd been doing while "helping" customers, she'd already had a break. Or two or three. I think a blood vessel in Philip's eye popped as he asked her whether or not she thought she should help the people already in line at that point rather than taking her break. She reluctantly agreed that yes, she might want to proceed with, you know, doing the job she's paid for. She said the best she could do was put Philip on a flight that left at 1:20 and arrived at 3:40.Once she issued him a new ticket, she informed him that he would have to go to another gate to receive a seat. He asked why she couldn't give him a seat since she'd just given him a ticket, to which she replied "I just can't." Philip then walked from A-27 to A-43 where he stood in line for another 45 minutes in order to receive a seat assignment for a flight he was already issued a ticket for. I know, I know. But really, I am not making this up.

On my end, I started to panic. Just a little. I decided to keep it to myself. I tried to be cheerful when we spoke because he'd already (rightfully so) given up on your airlines. From there, the hits just kept on coming. Almost immediately after he arrived at his new gate, he was told that that flight had been delayed an hour due to an issue with another plane (yeah, I don't get it either). Then they changed gates. The next thing we knew, the flight had been delayed over and over until it was set to leave at 4:54 pm eastern time and arrive at 5:41 pm central time. By that point I'd already panicked and calmed down again. You know how when things keep going so wrong that finally you're willing to grasp at anything, no matter how small? That was me then. I kept telling him: "It doesn't matter if you're a little late for the party. No one will notice if it's 30 minutes. Don't shave, just change clothes. Just get here." I asked him to go up to the ticketing agent and to explain the situation and to explain that he wasn't going to get mad or anything, but if there was any chance that this flight might not leave at this new departure time, that if there was a chance that it might not happen at all to please tell him so he could try to find any other way, any way, to get to Alabama. The agent said she didn't see why the plane wouldn't be leaving at its new time and that yes, there certainly was going to be a flight. We sucked it up an waited. And then the coup de grâce, the final blow from Delta/Northwest airlines. Like Kaiser effing Soze, POOF. She was gone. There was no plane. Both like they had never existed. And maybe they never had. Philip and the other passengers waited to board a plane, but a plane never came. The ticket agent left a few minutes before they were scheduled to start boarding and no one came to replace her. Ever. So, suddenly, there was just nothing; no explanation of what happened to the plane, why it didn't come, no help. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Philip and other passengers just milled around the gate. He said the next thing he saw was the flight screen at his gate suddenly change from a departure time of 4:54 to a new departure time of 7:30 p.m.

It would be arriving one hour after the party ended.

Philip went out to the main terminal to try to find any flight within a two hour radius of our hometown.
I used up every reserve in my being as I called the airlines and explained the situation. I wish I had a recording of it. I explained that I was very distressed. I was shaking. My mom and sister were crying. My Dad appeared to be considering a heart attack. I was doing by best to be polite because I knew it wasn't the customer service rep's fault, specifically. I knew that really this episode was a symptom of a larger problem today with an industry that's completely FUBAR and so far removed from the pleasant experiences I remember from my childhood that it's like you've all turned into a permanent Mr. Hyde; one can never tell whether or not they're going to be delivered to their destination or held hostage in a never ending stream of delays and cancellations. In keeping, your customer service reps responded much as I anticipated; in a business-like fashion that suggested much scripting, discontent and boredom. They were "very sorry" and could really understand how upset I was. They would be happy to refund THE SECOND LEG OF HIS TRIP. And that's it. I remember the days when you had a complaint or were overbooked and the agents would go out of their way to try to help you or resolve the issue; they'd even go so far as to issue you a free trip, extra miles, etc.. One time I heard an agent offer a nice watch. No more. Hello, Mr. Hyde.

So, if you want a definition of bittersweet, here it is. It's the ending to this saga:
Philip started walking. He walked until he saw an agent, any agent. He walked up to that agent and begged her for help. He got a ticket for another one of your flights going to Birmingham (an hour and a half drive from our hometown) that had been delayed multiple times for multiple hours, too. He got on that flight and was set to arrive in Birmingham at around 7:30. The flight started taxiing out to the runway but stopped suddenly. The pilot came on over the intercom. Philip briefly wondered who or what he'd pissed off to such a cosmic, karmic degree. "Uh, folks, we've had to pull over," the pilot said, "It seems the ground crew did not file the right papers before we left, so we'll have to wait for them to do that before we can leave." Tag on 15 minutes while they waited. Philip finally arrived in Birmingham. My father (who began a love affair with flying planes when I was a little girl) and his good friend Mike flew a prop plane down to Birmingham. They coordinated with the airport to have a van to drive Philip over to the smaller airport when he arrived. They practically kept the engines running as Philip hopped on board. He changed on the 30 minute flight to Huntsville. He and my father arrived at the party 15 minutes before it ended.

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If you haven't yet taken a moment to imagine that story happening to you, I beg you to. Imagine that's your daughter. Imagine you are me. Imagine you are Philip who is bearing the weight of everyone's disappointment and can do nothing about it.

Because of the nature of his job, I have attended many events on my own: weddings, parties, etc. I never expected to attend my own engagement party without the two most important men in my life there to share the experience with..

So that's the story. I've thought a lot about how to end this extremely long-winded letter, and it's as follows:

At some point, the odds are that one of your 75,000+ employees (or even you) might be in Philip's care--now at the Mayo Clinic or later on in life. I can tell you that he will not fail to do his best work. Failure is not an option in his profession, as you well know. Failure in his profession results in death or lawsuits that can completely destroy a practice, lives, even families. Philip will give you the best care he can, to the best of his ability every single time. If you have concerns, he will listen with an attentive ear and he will do his best to make you comfortable, to make things right and to make you healthy--whether it's at 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning. He will never, ever open his mouth to blame someone for a mistake (even if it was someone else's mistake). That's true accountability.

I wish the same could be said for your airline.

Sincerely,
Rachel Dunagan

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I am crying over here... I am so sorry - the word sorry doesn't begin to cover it - that this happened to you. I've heard of some bad airline experiences, but this one is truly nightmarish. There is nothing worse than being forced to deal with incompetent, inconsiderate, lazy people who have chosen to enter into the field of customer service. It is truly maddening. I hope you and Philip have since celebrated your engagement again and again... together, surrounded by friends and family... or alone, just the two of you. Keep celebrating each other. That's what it's all about. Cheers!

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