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For forty-five years I have been loyal to Delta, and I assumed it was more or less reciprocated.  I was stupid to think they’d uphold their end of the bargain.  It’s clear now that Delta never saw it as a promise, as their new policies (see here and here) for 2016 make clear.

But I digress.  The quo I expected for my quid was that Delta would continue the few perks that meant the most to me:

  • Complimentary upgrades to first class on domestic flights.
  • Complimentary access to their version of premium economy, which Delta first called Economy Comfort and has recently renamed Comfort+.
  • Complimentary premium economy upgrades for friends and family when on flying with me on the same record (up to eight travelers).
  • Complimentary checked luggage.
  • Early boarding after first class.
  • Club lounge privileges.

Used to be that I would routinely get upgraded to first, but in recent years, even as a Lifetime Platinum with five million miles, I get in the very back of the upgrade queue.  There are so many Diamonds that even they don’t routinely get an upgrade. Add in ever more stringent upgrade rules about which economy fares are eligible, and my chances narrow even more. Heck, my friend Bill McW here in Raleigh has amassed an astonishing seven million miles on Delta, and he never gets upgraded, either.  So that perk, while still technically on the books, has been watered down to nothing for me:

  • Complimentary upgrades to first class on domestic flights.

The free club privileges I used to enjoy are long gone.  As a Flying Colonel on Delta, I always had access to the exclusive Flying Colonel rooms before the Crown Room was invented. That free access continued for very frequent flyers until SkyClub replaced Crown Rooms at Delta and the Northwest WorldClub lounges.  Now even my Amex Platinum Card only allows one person in (me), so I cannot take friends or family into the club without paying:

  • Club lounge privileges.

For 2016 Delta has totally rejiggered its economy class fare structure by parsing it into three broad categories (see the comparison chart here):

  1. Basic Economy – the cheapest fare. Meant to compete with LCCs like Southwest.  No frills except for elite flyers, and no upgrades even for them.
  2. Main Cabin – a range of economy fares like we’ve always been used to, but bumped up considerably in many markets. Can only “upgrade” (Delta’s new verb, replacing “access”) to Comfort+ after buying a ticket, and the actual time when the “upgrade” is made is vague.
  3. Comfort+ – Delta now sells its premium economy as an entirely different fare class and claims it’s an upgrade even though on domestic airplanes they have reduced the seat pitch from 4” more than the rest of the cabin to just 3” better than the back of the plane.

Testing fares in one market (RDU/BIL) for all three summer months of 2016, I was unable find any Main Cabin fares at delta.com for under $526 round trip, and Comfort+ was $707 every single day on all flights, a $181 premium over what is already a very high fare, especially up to nine months out.  For my family of four to fly Raleigh to Billings, it would now cost over $2800 in C+ whereas this past summer the total cost was a thousand dollars less than that for four people. Therefore my takeaway from the changes is that the parsing of the cabin both diminishes my ability to “upgrade” to Comfort+ and pushes up the average fare:

  • Complimentary access to their version of premium economy, which Delta first called Economy Comfort and has recently renamed Comfort+.

Oh, and I cannot “upgrade” my family to Comfort+ any more, either, eliminating another important perk:

  • Complimentary premium economy upgrades for friends and family when on flying with me on the same record (up to eight travelers).

I’m tired of being pushed again and again farther back on the plane. I am stripped now of every decent perk save early boarding and free checked bags.

I could tolerate coach when the seating was right behind first class, and I could get an aisle seat. That way I could be less cramped and get off the plane reasonably fast. Since, as I said, Platinums rarely get upgraded to first anymore. I learned to tolerate sitting in the back. But now they push me way back.

The way I see it, I flew over five million miles on Delta, and all I got was the stupid luggage tag.

Of course my complaints fall into the category of primal scream therapy because loyalty doesn’t matter.  You want to fly first?  Pay for it.  You want premium economy?  Pay for it.  As Joe Brancatelli reminds us, airlines care less and less about loyalty on a year-to-year basis now because they don’t have to cater to their most frequent flyers in a market where people are paying what they are asking and every seat is full on every flight.

And it’s sure obvious that they care almost nothing about lifetime loyalty now.  My disgruntlement with Delta, including the feeling of utter powerlessness that accompanies a lifetime of loyalty being unrewarded, is met with a shrug of indifference from the airline, not even a reply email.

Since there’s no way to fight back, I conclude that it’s all about airfare guerilla tactics now.  Just like what I did switching from Delta to Cathay to go to Asia (see previous post).  That cost Delta $10,000 in fares on one itinerary.  More importantly, it gave me peace of mind, and I am now actually looking forward to the trip on Cathay to experience their Premium Economy cabin, which by all accounts is far superior to Delta’s.

It’s all about attitude adjustment.  Better to pay for a service you want on the schedule you want than to keeping chasing ephemeral perks and ever-devalued frequent flyer miles (an entirely different topic).

Gotta wonder, though, how Delta will respond when (not if) the air travel market collapses again, as it inevitably does periodically in the economic cycle.  Will they come offering a basket of goodies to lure back my business?  Probably.

But by then maybe I will have found satisfaction in independence.

Recently I attended the annual Rail-Volution transit conference, this year held in Dallas.  The Hyatt Regency Downtown Dallas served as the conference hotel, a comfortable and stress-free property for such large events and perfectly located cheek-by-jowl with Dallas Union Station.  Union Station is the primary transit hub for Dallas, and the Hyatt conveniently connects to it by a pedestrian tunnel, making it ideal for exploring metro area transit systems.


Of course I first had to get to Dallas, and that meant flying into DFW.  From RDU American Airlines has nonstop service, and that’s what I booked.

For decades I have taken DFW for granted, as probably most of us have.  Just another big airport to be endured as we schlep from one gate to another connecting flight. But this time, flying into and out of DFW Airport, and then attending a number of conference workshops and discussion sessions which focused (naturally) on bus and rail transit, many of which transit services connect DFW to the surrounding metroplex, made me see the gigantic Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in a new light.  As I departed, experiencing American Express’s new Centurion Lounge in Terminal D drove home my newfound respect for the humongous facility.


What other U.S. airport encompasses 17,207 acres (almost 27 square miles) and operates its own damn tollway?  With seven active runways and 165 gates, DFW never runs out of capacity (though Mother Nature often humbles the Texas-sized operation and reminds us who is boss). DFW is home to over 60,000 on-airport employees daily, making it larger than many towns and small cities.

Transit services connecting directly to the airport include buses and one of the DART light rail lines (the Orange Line).  The DART light rail station is at Terminal A, and weekday trains to Dallas and beyond leave three times an hour.  Orange Line light rail is comfortable and convenient and takes about an hour to reach the Dallas CBD (Union Station). This makes it a no-brainer at peak traffic congestions times, assuming you don’t need a car and the heart of the city is your destination.  Weekday ridership is about 21,000, which is excellent, and I assume the airport connection is the choice of a good many airport employees.


TEX Rail is a 27-mile commuter rail project being developed by the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (known locally as simply “The T”) and will be the next passenger rail service connecting to DFW.  It will share the DART Orange Line light rail station at Terminal A.  The T will begin operating in 2018 with 42 trains per day between Fort Worth and DFW at about 30 minute intervals.  The end-to-end trip is expected to take 52 minutes. Here’s a map of the expected route and also shows part of the Trinity Railway Express (TRE) commuter rail line that connects Dallas and Fort Worth:


Discussions with both Dallas and Fort Worth transit authority folks revealed that DFW reserves the exclusive rights to construction on airport property at or near the terminals.  Thus when The T’s rail construction project reaches airport property, only DFW-approved crews will perform the work, another example of the power and authority of the airport.

Another option for public transit between DFW and either Fort Worth or Dallas is to take a bus to the TRE (Trinity Railway Express) commuter train station at Centreport. TRE runs at about 30 minute intervals between the two cities.  This method also takes about an hour counting connection time between bus and train to reach either big city.


Of course shared vans (about $20 one way), black cars, and taxis are available, as are Uber and other shared rides.  Cabs and private cars, though, are expensive (taxi is about $60 one way to Dallas) and are subject to congestion delays, as all rubber-tired vehicles are (bus, taxi, van, black car service, Uber, rental car).  I prefer steel wheels on steel rails because trains run in their own dedicated corridors not subject to rubber-tired traffic congestion.


Leaving for home, my flight to Raleigh/Durham Airport (RDU was scheduled from Terminal D, the international terminal.  I was glad of that since it gave me the opportunity to try out the new American Express Centurion Lounge, where I spent two happy hours.


In the Lounge I treated myself to a 20-minute massage (free, but I tipped the guy $20), imbibed a couple of very tall and cold glasses of Chandon Champagne, downed several of the choice nibbles laid out (fresh, dee-lish, creative), chatted up the very nice staff all over the place, checked out every nook and cranny (paper in the men’s room was almost out, the only black mark I saw), got email mostly up to date, and recharged my phone, all while taking in the view and relishing the people-watching,


I couldn’t believe the quality of the food, made by a real chef, and the drinks, including Chandon, were all complimentary. Joe Brancatelli tells me that Amex is doing the clubs as a way to keep the Platinum Card competitive. Well, if the DFW facility is any example, they are doing these Centurion Lounges right. They will burnish Amex’s image.  The one at DFW was certainly impressive.  Now if they can just open them everywhere!


Walking to my gate after reluctantly exiting the mesmerizing Amex lounge, I was surprised by a text from American Airlines telling me I’d been upgraded: the cherry on top of an overall good experience using DFW.  AA’s more comfortable chairs in first class meant I’d be able to snooze on my late flight to Raleigh (arrived just before midnight ET).  Having just spent several days learning to appreciate the airport with its seamless public transit integration and panoply of other services, I took in and enjoyed terminal D’s open, modern design with fresh eyes. It’ll be hard to be indifferent to DFW again

For flights Raleigh to Hong Kong in mid-December of 2015, I paid Delta Airlines for four tickets priced at more than $10,000 on February 15, a full ten months before our trip.  I knew I was giving Delta a helluva float, but I was determined to have my pick of the best seats in Economy Comfort.

By buying the tickets so early, I did indeed get the exact seats I wanted on the Delta long-haul flights of almost 16 hours.

Mission accomplished!

Or so I thought.

Delta, however, apparently didn’t get the memo wherein they promised to keep their end of the bargain, which was very simply to honor my seat selections.

You’d think Delta would hold up their end if for no other reason than in appreciation of my 45 year flying record of 5,323,000 miles.  No.  Didn’t happen,

Instead, Delta’s automated system of adjusting itinerary changes (i.e., change of aircraft and schedules) suddenly, as explained in my preceding post, dropped all my carefully selected seats and assigned new seats at random by computer. This happened not once but repeatedly. Each time I frantically tried to reclaim the preferred seats I’d picked in February, and each time some of the seats were gone.

The chronic nature of these chaotic seat changes finally got to me.  Why should Delta have my my money for almost a year, yet not honor my seat selections?  I started looking for the first time at alternative airlines to transport my family to and from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bangkok.

That’s when I discovered that not all premium economy seats are alike.  In fact, I learned (thanks to a tip from good friend and travel writer Joe Brancatelli) that the offering on Cathay Pacific, the premier air carrier to Asia in my opinion, is far superior to Delta’s Economy Comfort.  Cathay’s premium economy is 38 inches of pitch and 20 inches wide (better in both degrees than Delta), with upgraded meals and other very nice perks that Delta EC doesn’t have (see this video for the amazing difference).

Furthermore, I was pleased to compare schedules and see that Cathay is just two flights to get there (RDU/JFK on OneWorld partner AA, then JFK/HKG nonstop) compared to Delta’s three flights (RDU/ATL, ATL/NRT, NRT/HKG).  Cathay’s schedule would also get us there at 2:50 in the afternoon rather than after 9:00 that night.  We would arrive home sooner, too, on our return legs.

In the end, though, it was the superior Premium Economy service that sold me on Cathay.  Comparing Delta’s very good Economy Comfort service to Cathay’s super Premium Economy cabin was not a close call.  It’s true that the CX fare was higher than DL, but that didn’t surprise me this close to December (I had purchased the Delta tickets many months earlier). After securing a Cathay itinerary for our dates, I had my Delta tickets refunded (which Delta allowed due to multiple involuntary schedule changes).

I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I am very excited now about flying in Premium Economy on Cathay!  No, of course it isn’t Business Class, and we’ve set our expectations realistically.  But everyone I’ve spoken with who has used Cathay’s PE service raves about how much better it is than Delta, United, and American premium economy offerings.  They’ve all said that Cathay PE is their number one choice, hands down, among airlines serving Asia.

I also feel a bit sheepish that I didn’t know the premium economy service on Cathay was so much better than Delta.  My complacency, which I attribute to satisfaction with the Delta product, was broken, ironically, by Delta itself.  By constantly kicking out my hard-won seat selections on their long-haul legs, Delta forced me to abandon the status quo and look around for other ways to fly to Asia.

So Cathay gets my ten thousand-plus bucks instead of Delta.  I am delighted to have chosen Cathay Pacific Airways, and I look eagerly forward to a fine experience flying with them to Asia.  I hope it will the first among many more on Cathay to come.

My family of four has been planning a trip to Southeast Asia for several years.  As our kids have grown older (now 16 and 12), we decided this would be the year we showed them Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand.  Of course getting there from Raleigh/Durham would mean long flights to reach the other side of the world (literally).

As a Delta Lifetime Platinum, my traveling companions and I are granted complimentary access to Economy Comfort seating.  EC is Delta’s version of Premium Economy, consisting of the first few rows of coach.  The seating is just as uncomfortably narrow as every other row of coach, but the spacing (seat pitch) is said to be 4 inches greater, and the recline of EC seats is claimed to be 4 inches better than regular coach seats.  Entertainment (movies, etc.) are free, and the alcohol is supposed to flow, well, like wine.

On flights over an hour or so up to three hours, my experience is that EC is slightly more comfortable than ordinary coach, but on long overseas legs, such as the 14 hours of flying ATL to Tokyo, enduring the flight in EC seats is far superior to the torture back in sardine class.


Since one can only select Economy Comfort seats if they are available, the wise traveler books early to assure seats are open.  In my case, that is, booking not one but four seats, with the need to keep all four seats together on each of multiple flight legs, it behooves me to book extra early.

And that’s exactly what I did:  For outbound flights RDU/HKG in mid-December, I bought our tickets on February 15, a full ten months before our trip.  This made Delta a bit over $10,000 richer, and me poorer by the same amount.

The itinerary was RDU/ATL/SEA/HKG out, and BKK/NRT/ATL/RDU return.  I was delighted to book Delta’s Seattle/Hong Kong nonstop flight (who wants to change planes in Narita?), and I was even happier to get very good Economy Comfort seats on all six flights.  When it was done, I breathed an audible sigh of relief (so my wife remembers).  Thank goodness the flights and seats were secured.  One big worry behind us.

Or so I thought.  Delta didn’t care and has been tormenting me at regular intervals ever since.


Just eleven days after putting over ten grand on Delta’s ledger, I got a notice that the carrier had changed our outbound itinerary to RDU/LAX/SEA/HKG.  Okay, I figured, putting us on the nonstop Raleigh to L.A. flight was not bad—until I saw that Delta had dumped every seat on every flight, both out and return.  Luckily, I was able to respond to the notice quickly (not always possible when we are busy), and I managed to reacquire all but one of the good seats I’d chosen when I’d first booked and paid for the flights.  Whew!  I could relax again, yes?  No.


I checked our December flights out of idle curiosity (and perhaps motivated by a tinge of paranoia) in early July and did not find any changes.  But on July 10 I received a notice that our itinerary had once more been modified.  Suddenly we were flying RDU/MSP/SEA/HKG outbound, because the nonstop SEA/HKG flight had moved up 2.5 hours earlier than before.  Checking our seats, I found that all my carefully selected selections on all legs were gone.  Frantically, I went through each flight and chose as many of the same seats as I could, but this time some of the bulkhead seats were not available, forcing me to move my family back a row.  Okay, still in EC, but not as comfortable as the seats I had.

This time I called Delta’s Elite line to complain and to ask, What gives?  The agent I spoke with was professional and genuinely polite.  Her sympathies, however, were constrained by her inability to promise that it wouldn’t happen again.  She explained that Delta’s systems routinely and automatically eliminated pre-existing seat selections for the slightest one-minute schedule change, even if the aircraft type, flight number, or routing had not changed.  She further explained that their system should not have dumped my selections on flights that had not changed, but she had no explanation for why it had happened, nor could she assure me that it would not occur again.

On this dismaying news, I began to think that I should not have booked on Delta.  After fifty years of flying, and more than forty on Delta (with over five million miles to show for it), I thought I’d have at least the privilege of permanent seat selections.  I also began to regret that I had given them more than ten thousand bucks to use for ten months before they had to provide anything in return for it.  Foolish me.


Over the summer I got into the habit of checking the December flights weekly, looking for more surprises.  In early September I received another “Delta Messenger” email with a big outbound itinerary change:  RDU/MSP/SEA/NRT/HKG.  It appeared that Delta had dropped its nonstop flight Seattle to Hong Kong, forcing us instead to connect through Tokyo (SEA/NRT and NRT/HKG).  Nerves on edge, I once again went through each flight to select new seats.  I was partially relieved to discover that only our outbound seats had been affected (even those on the same domestic flights as before).  Seats selected on the return flights BKK/NRT/ATL/RDU were intact and unchanged.  However, the best seats on the Seattle/Narita and Narita/Hong Kong flights were gone, and I had to take what I could get.  Once again I phoned the Delta Elite line, and once again a very polite and patient agent told me that there was absolutely nothing they could do to help me.  I began to wonder why they were there at all if they could not do anything.


Barely more than a week later came another Delta Messenger email with another radical itinerary change on the flights out:  RDU/ATL/NRT/HKG.  So now it appeared we had been changed to connect through Atlanta instead of MSP and SEA to get to Narita; no explanation why.  Leaving a meeting I was attending, I responded to the notice within 5 minutes of receipt, but no matter.  All the decent EC seats on the Atlanta/Narita nonstop were taken, and I had to select the back row of EC to get four seats together for my family.  Another call to Delta was a carbon copy of the others:  Can’t help you, but we sure appreciate your many decades of loyalty and the fact that you were dumb enough to lend us ten grand for ten months, interest-free.  Oh, and it very well could keep on happening because December is still three months away.  Good luck!


I could get a refund—a full refund—from Delta.  I asked them.  Before doing that, I’d want to make sure that I could book alternate airlines at reasonable fares.  Checking several air carrier sites directly and kayak.com, I found fares as low as $2159 (compared to our $2540) round trip, but they were in ordinary (sardine class) economy.  The cheapest premium economy fares start at $3336 per person (Cathay and partner AA) if booked now for the December dates.  No comparable fares.

(But it is tempting to spend the extra $796 per person to fly on Cathay.  After all, Cathay’s premium economy is 38 inches and 20 inches wide, with upgraded meals and other very nice perks that Delta EC doesn’t have (see this video for the amazing difference), and it’s only two flights to get there (RDU/ORD, ORD/HKG) compared to Delta’s three.  Multiplying that fare difference times four, however, means paying $3,184 more, a deal killer.)

Of course we could take the refund and not make the trip, but we have prepaid for hotels in Hong Kong, in Singapore, on Koh Lipe island in Thailand, and in Bangkok.  More importantly, this trip will seal a lifetime memory in the kids, and that’s more important than my frustration at being helpless and jerked around by Delta.

Nonetheless, the question remains, Why does Delta torment me so?  I believe the answer is simple: because it has a much stronger commitment to making money than to real, sincere customer service.  Delta Elite CS agents are well-trained to be polite and knowledgeable, but they have been stripped of the discretionary decision-making such agents once had to make things right for customers.

In other words, Delta torments me because Delta can.


On a recent seven flight jaunt to the west coast and back (all on Delta), I had an opportunity to use and observe Delta’s “Early Valet” service that debuted this summer.  On the whole, I was favorably impressed, I came away with these thoughts and observations:

  • The service, which is free, involves Delta gate staff marking some carry-on bags with special Early Valet luggage tags and then taking the bags onto the plane before boarding begins and placing them in the overhead compartments directly above the owners’ assigned seats.

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  • When the bags are tagged, the gate agent writes the flight number and seat number on the back to ensure they are placed above the seats (as shown in the above photo).
  • The gate agent then moves the bags close to the boarding gate door, and when all have been assembled, he or she makes several trips down the Jetway with one, two, or three bags at the time to place them in the overhead compartments (as shown below).


  • Watching the process, it seemed clumsy, but effective.  Over time, perhaps, assuming Delta continues the service, they’ll work out the kinks and make it more efficient.


  • Early Valet was offered on three of the seven flights:
    • RDU/LAX – no
    • LAX/SEA – YES
    • SEA/SLC – YES
    • SLC/BIL – no (but this was an RJ)
    • BIL/MSP – no
    • MSP/ATL – YES
    • ATL/RDU – no
  • Presumably, Delta believes that boarding a few bags in advance will improve overall boarding time.  Certainly all seven flights I was on were full, with no empty seats, and thus all were candidates for the service–though, as I said, only three of the seven flights offered the service.


  • As far as I know, Delta has not said what criteria it uses to decide which airports and which flights will offer Early Valet.
  • The Early Valet process doesn’t yet have a standard operating protocol, or so it seemed.  At LAX a gate agent made an announcement that the service was available “for a limited number of bags” for customers who so volunteered to use it.  I was quick to discern what she was talking about and offered mine immediately.  Slowly a few other customers figured out that Delta wasn’t going to shred their bags and brought their luggage forward.  When she had about a dozen pieces–all roller bags, by the way–she stopped taking more.
  • The LAX gate agent then made a second P.A. that gave me a chuckle. She warned folks using Early Valet that “the service does not continue on arrival. Passengers have to get their own bags down from the overhead and off the plane.”  It sounded as if some customers who had previously used Early Valet assumed that the luggage fairy would carry their bags from the plane at the flight’s destination as well as loading them at the origin airport!  However, I did not hear that heads-up again at the other two airports, one more indication that SOPs for executing the service are not yet in place.
  • I was impressed that the service was egalitarian.  It was not offered just to First Class or only to Elite customers, but to everyone equally.  In today’s flying world of highly parsed customer service, such equality is rare.
  • At least that was my first and second impression (flying from LAX and later out of SEA).  On the third leg (out of MSP) where the service was offered, the gate agent did not make any public announcement, but instead walked around quietly to families with children and to flyers obviously aged or infirm, offering the service only to them.  She collected enough bags that way to fill her quota (assuming there is one), and I stood by the gate lamenting that my roller bag was not among those rumbling down the Jetway as she made several trips to place them overhead their seats.  Still, I approved that the service wasn’t strictly for premium/elite flyers.
  • I asked the agent who handled the bags at LAX if she was part of the regular gate staff, but I did not get a clear answer.  She seemed to be a floating staff member who moved from gate to gate wherever the service was offered to supplement the usual over-worked gate staff.  However, I could have misunderstood her.  The reason for my question was to learn whether the Early Valet service required extra labor or could function with existing gate staffing.
  • In summary, I quickly got the hang of Early Valet and liked the service.  My bag was properly placed directly over my assigned seat, and I was able to sally forth onto the plane unburdened by the usual sea anchor on wheels behind me.  When I first read of it, I was mildly dismissive and unimpressed, but I was wrong.  Now I hope Early Valet lasts and is mimicked by other air carriers.

Last week’s post explained how Hertz left me in the lurch in Seattle without a car at all for two and a half hours despite having made the reservation three months prior, and a crazed Gold counter agent taunted me to boot (see here).  Having purged my soul of Hertz’ evil mischief through my writing, I thought I was done with the pain and suffering they’d caused me.

I was wrong.  The same day I posted the story I received a letter in the mail from an insurance claims specialist informing me that Hertz in Montana was charging my American Express card for damages to a different rental car I had rented at the Billings airport the week following my horrible experience with Hertz at the Seattle airport.

At this point a little background is in order.  Why would I rent from Hertz again the very next week after what happened in Seattle?  Had I not learned my lesson about Hertz?

Explanations are rarely simple.  I had reserved both rental cars from Hertz at the same time, one for a week in Seattle and another for the following week in Billings.  My wife and I were taking our kids to Washington to celebrate our 20th anniversary and then to spend a week with her parents in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area near Nye, Montana.  We’ve spent a week with them every summer for 22 years, and since Nye is 90 miles from Billings, every year I’ve rented a car from Hertz at the modest Billings Airport.

I’ve had 22 years of hassle-free experience with the nice folks who staff the Hertz counter at Billings airport, but just the same, the prospect of another experience with Hertz caused me to look into renting from a different agency.  However, rental cars sell out at Billings in July, and when I checked two other companies, nothing was available. So I did what I had to do and let my reservation with Hertz at BIL stand.

Most summers in Montana I rent a minivan so that we can accommodate my wife’s parents and our family of four in one vehicle as we take in the gorgeous vistas of the Stillwater Valley in and around Nye, Dean, Fishtail, and Absarokee, Montana.  Hertz at the Billings airport had a brand new Toyota Sienna ready for me upon arrival, exactly what I had reserved.  Vehicle inspection at BIL is done by the renter, as usual, and we looked over the van parked in the small Hertz lot before driving off.  Not a scratch or a dent was evident.


We were impressed with the comfort and handling of the new Toyota Sienna.  It was quiet and a joy to drive, both peppy and responsive, with excellent visibility, and it met our needs to haul around six family members for our week in the mountains.


The following Saturday we drove the 90 miles back to Billings and returned the car.  We walked around the vehicle and inspected it from every angle before leaving it in the small Hertz parking area.  My family and I could see not a ding, dent, or scratch on the car.  Other than a layer of dust, the Sienna was in the same fine condition as when we picked it up.  I took the keys and the contract to the Hertz counter in the small Billings airport and closed out my contract.  We headed for the TSA line.

In hindsight, I realize that I should have taken lots of pictures when we picked it up and when we returned it.  Next time I rent a car, I will.  The letter I received claimed that Hertz had found “scratches” on the car caused by me, though they could not tell me where on the van, and no photos were attached.  I phoned the claims representative, a very nice woman in Utah near Provo, and I explained that this was an error.  We had inspected the car and found no damage.  I asked for evidence of damage, and I told her how it was Hertz’ word against ours, since no one was in the parking lot to inspect the car when we left it.  If damage was done after we left, I said, that is on Hertz, not me.  I politely but firmly stated that I would be opening a dispute for any charges with American Express and ask that the charges not be paid.

The claims agent was professional and calm, and she said she would obtain descriptions of the alleged damages and pictures, after which she’d get back to me.  She phoned me a couple of days ago to say that the folks at Hertz in Billings could not locate photos or specific damage descriptions, and that they had decided to close the claim against me.  Naturally I breathed a sigh of relief to avoid expending a lot of non value-adding energy to resist a false charge.  What a waste of time having to address the bogus claim.  At least, I thought, that was behind me.

No such luck.  The next day I received an email from the claims agent saying that Hertz had changed their minds again and would be proceeding with the charge.  I contacted her again at once to protest and to ask what the heck was going on, after which yet another email arrived with a letter attached affirming for the second time that the claim has been closed:

Re: Damage Incident With: Overland West, Hertz System Licensee, Billings, Montana
Our Claim Number: 48xxxx

Dear William Allen:
This letter is to inform you that the above-referenced claim has been closed. No further action is required from you.

Though naturally relieved once again, I now have no more faith in the Hertz people in Billings than I do in the Hertz staff in Seattle.  No more Hertz.  I just booked several cars with Avis for trips coming up in the next few months.

What, I wonder, is to become of Hertz?  Is this the new car rental industry paradigm?  Will Avis and National and others follow Hertz on its march to the bottom? Car rental rates continue to surge (especially the onerous taxes), and we need competition to provide price-sensitive renters with choices. It’s a tired model anyway, even if familiar. Why do we have to deal with Hertz and its ilk at all?  Wouldn’t it be great if a novel business paradigm sprang up to challenge the car rental firms, like Uber has done for taxi services and Airbnb has done for the accommodation trade?

The name Hertz used to be synonymous with excellence.  It was such a gold-plated brand that Avis, number two in the car rental game, had to devise a clever ad campaign to compete (see here for a brief overview).  That rivalry started in the 1940s after World War II ended and was raging over much of the five decades of my world travels.  I regularly rented from both companies and still did through last month.  But after what happened to me and my family in Seattle in July, I won’t be reserving any cars again with Hertz, at least not until I read that they have fixed their fundamental problems.

Here’s the story:  My wife and I were spending a week on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and we took the kids with us.  Our 6:00 AM departure from RDU required a 4:00 AM wake-up, so by the time we got to Sea-Tac after connecting through LAX, we had been up for 12 hours and were exhausted.


Arriving on the shuttle at the huge Seattle Airport offsite rental car facility on Saturday afternoon in mid-July about 3:30 PM, I hurried down to the Gold board to locate my minivan, which I had reserved three months earlier in April.  My name was absent.  Usually the big Hertz Gold boards are full of car assignments, but there was no need to check it twice that day because only a few names were listed at all.  I should have guessed then that I was in trouble.

Perplexed, I went to the adjacent Gold counter downstairs (the main reservations counters are upstairs), which was manned by one person, with my wife and kids in tow.  Two and a half hours later we left in a Hertz vehicle, though not the one I had reserved.  What I experienced was almost word for word this famous Seinfeld skit about a car rental company from a 1991 episode, the key lines of which are:

Jerry: I don’t understand. Do you have my reservation?

Rental Car Agent: We have your reservation, we just ran out of cars.

Jerry: But the reservation keeps the car here. That’s why you have the reservation.

Rental Car Agent: I think I know why we have reservations.

Jerry: I don’t think you do. You see, you know how to *take* the reservation, you just don’t know how to *hold* the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation: the holding. Anybody can just take them.

Except that in my case the counter agent was a moron, and he was itching for a fight.  I was very tired from the long trip and lack of sleep, and I was upset because we had commitments in Olympia, Washington 90 minutes south.  I also had my wife and two kids with me, and I was protective of their well-being. I had fulfilled my duties in reserving the car, but Hertz had not fulfilled theirs.

Unlike the Seinfeld episode, the demon-possessed Hertz agent claimed that they had no cars at all, not even the compact that Jerry ended up with.  He could not tell me, either, how long the wait would be.  The nutty counter agent intimated, though, that it could be many hours, and the guy seemed to take pleasure in goosing my frustration.  He then easily provoked me into a heated argument during which I asked what happened to Hertz, once the greatest car rental agency in the world.  When I raised my voice to make that point, the agent threatened that he could have me arrested if I wasn’t “nicer” because “we are in a federal building.”  Doubtful that the ugly pile of concrete and steel miles from the airport was actually under government jurisdiction, I nonetheless took his threat seriously, since I knew he had the power to cancel my reservation–arguably a worse fate than spending the night in the hoosegow.

After an hour I chose to seek out a manager upstairs to complain about both the absence of my reserved van and the insane Hertz employee downstairs.  Two managers, a man and a women, explained that the agent down below had contacted them to say that I was a trouble-maker, and the two remonstrated me to wait my turn.  In other words, they didn’t believe me and had no better explanation for why I did not have a car or when I might have one.  Checkmate!

So I prowled the entire rental car complex, asking for a car to rent–any car–at every agency. Nothing. They all bragged about hoarding cars for customers holding reservations.  Too bad Hertz didn’t understand that critical business premise to their industry, I thought.

Spiritually defeated, I went back downstairs and dejectedly sat, mute, awaiting the car, whenever it might come.  I sent my family to get soft drinks and a quick snack.  The madman hired by Hertz to interface with their best customers like me, however, wasn’t satisfied that he had beat me.  He came out from around the counter and engaged me in conversation, repeatedly attempting to antagonize me.  I didn’t take the bait, and I asked him not to speak to me, just to leave me alone.  He kept it up, though. When I raised my voice to repeat that he should “stop antagonizing me and not speak to me,” he claimed I was the one causing trouble.

I left to go upstairs again to seek out the managers and got a call from my wife, still down there, saying the Gold counter idiot had gleefully informed her that he had canceled our reservation and to “have a nice day.”

This time my discussion with the two managers went differently.  It began poorly because they were very defensive about their cuckoo employee, who they said had just called them to report I was the one causing a ruckus.  I was humble, and my tone and explanation sounded that way, calm and flat.  I asked the manager to please review the video from their downstairs cameras to verify facts.

Long story short, they did study the video of the lunatic downstairs, after which one of the managers apologized profusely to me and quickly found a car for us.  No, it wasn’t a van, but neither was it Jerry Seinfeld’s Ford Escort compact.  It was instead a new Dodge Durango SUV with all the bells and whistles.  Though we really needed the extra seats in the van, I would have accepted even Jerry’s Ford Escort at that point.


I had already instructed my family to come upstairs after the nutcase had told my wife that he’d canceled our reservation.  Now I asked the apologetic manager to please keep us away from their psychotic employee.  He did so, bringing the car to a distant location and offering to carry our bags to it.  The manager also took $100 off the rental as a token apology from Hertz.  While I appreciated the discount, I just wanted to leave by then, having waited more than two and a half hours and having been subjected to the worst customer service representative I think I have ever seen.

It’s hard to fathom that this event could happen in a developed country, let alone in America and at Seattle. But it did, and Hertz squandered 45 years of loyalty in one afternoon.  How can I ever trust them again?


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