Even a paid first class ticket is no guarantee that things won’t go awry

Several months ago I booked a six day trip to New Orleans on Delta in mid-April (from RDU, my home airport), and I paid a pretty penny for the privilege of flying there in coach.  As a DL Five Million Miler and Platinum, I grabbed the best seats I could right behind first class when I bought the fare, and hoped that when the time came, I would be upgraded.

Then my commitments shifted under me unexpectedly. I’ve been involved in many months of transit planning as part of a team here in my neck of the woods, and I’d planned this trip to visit old friends in the jazz world to coincide with the crescendo of planning exercises that would end two days before my departure.  Didn’t happen.  The culmination of the transit planning work was rescheduled for the day after my departure. I had to be here for the meetings, and so I called Delta to rebook my outbound flights for two days later, making it a four day trip instead of six.

Of course the fare went up by quite a bit because it was only a month out by then, and I also had to pay the dreaded change fee.  I was able to use up my American Express Platinum Card $200 annual airline credit in one fell swoop to reduce the pain of those dollars flying out of my wallet faster than Delta’s jets zip to ATL.  I grabbed the best seats remaining in coach, of course, but my choices were limited by then.

Two weeks before my departure I checked for better seats in coach online at Delta.  Opening my record, I was offered a full “F” fare upgrade for just over $150.  Of course I had a lot of money invested in the fare at that point, so the difference to get to first class had shrunk.  Usually I do not succumb to such offers because they aren’t worth it, but for just $75 each way, I bit.  Better to have confirmed first class seats with no anxiety about waiting for an upgrade.  I paid the extra money and selected the seats I wanted on all four segments (1B).

On departure day I was in a lot of meetings and was dropped late at the airport while still talking on a 90-minute conference call about transit.  I didn’t even hang up through the TSA screen, just threw my phone in the dog bowl and sent it through the x-ray machine while 25 people babbled away in the ether.  My call didn’t end until I had boarded and put my luggage away.  Hanging up exhausted, I was greeted by a chirpy, eager-beaver flight attendant who exuded happiness and made it clear that she was there to make my flight the best ever.  Did I want a drink, she asked.  Yes, I said, a Bloody Mary. “With a lime, of course,” I emphasized.

“Oh, we’re out of limes,” she told me, because “we used them all up coming up from Atlanta!”

“No limes?” I groaned, as if I’d just received news of my 401K tanking again. “How on earth could Delta not have LIMES?  It’s not as if I’d asked for Beluga caviar.  They are just LIMES!”

Okay, I admit I was enervated and a bit overwrought.  I kept thinking how I’d paid $150 for a first class seat but could not even get a drink with limes, a common commodity.  I mean, what was the world coming to?

My happy-pill-taking FA was not going to let me down, however, and she went through a bunch of alternative liquors she could get me. I settled on Dewer’s on the rocks.  She literally leapt back to the galley and poured what looked to me like two mini-bottles of Dewer’s over ice into my glass (I could plainly see her from 1B).  Thrusting the cold glass into my hand, she beamed at me to await my verdict.  “MMMMMM!,” I uttered, as upbeat as I could, after taking the first sip.  She beamed even more and focused on other passengers in the first class cabin.

As we taxied out to the runway, the sweet-natured flight attendant brought me another Dewer’s on the rocks, again appearing to be a double shot (filled to the brim).  Ordinarily I am not a big drinker, stopping at two, or three at the most, but what the hell, I thought.  I was starting to relax, especially because my seatmate in 1A was a real raconteur, hailing from the Florida panhandle and himself matching my intake of hard liquor while regaling me with stories of menacing alligators and other swamp denizens he’d encountered.  I hardly ever get even the time of day from my flying companions these days, so it was a novelty to enjoy such a great conversation with someone who loved to talk and was good at telling colorful stories.  I polished off the second (double?) Dewer’s by the time we reached the runway’s end.

It was there the captain announced that Atlanta had ordered a ground stop and that we’d be sitting on the tarmac for “30-60 minutes.”  I began to realize that I was more than a little tipsy, but since I had a two hour connection in ATL, I didn’t fret over the delay.

Just then the happy FA came up from rear galley and proudly showed me an entire glass full of limes she had “rescued” from the back of the plane.  “Now you can have that Bloody Mary you craved!” she blurted out.

Sounded like a fine plan to me, though it was dawning on me that my speech was a bit slurred as I gabbed with the Floridian about shrimp nets and crab pots and which hull design was best for inshore fishing (I prefer a modified deep vee, such as a Boston Whaler Montauk, about the most perfect boat ever made).  I noticed again two bottles of vodka were disappearing into the Bloody Mary mix with the limes festooned around the perimeter of the glass.  The FA plonked it down with a flourish on my tray table, taking the empty Dewer’s glass, and I obliged her hospitality by chugging down half of it in no time.

An hour later we were still sitting on the runway at RDU, and I had polished off a second Bloody Mary, though by then I was too blotto to know or care whether she had put one or two bottles of vodka in the mix.  I just knew it was time to stop.

At the 90 minute mark, the fellow in 1A also stopped drinking because neither of us could talk and understand each other.   Our mouths weren’t forming words real well.  I realized then that the plane was going to be canceled or delayed so long that I could never make my connection…unless it, too, was delayed by a long time.  I may have been drinking heavily, but I had been constantly checking both my flights on Flightstats.com and Flightaware.com on my Samsung Galaxy (which I had plugged in to renew its juice).  I also called the Delta Elite line several times.  All indications were that both my flights were on time.

It was a very weird Kafkaesque moment when the DL Elite agent told me that my RDU/ATL flight was on the ground in Atlanta and that I would have no trouble making my connection ATL/MSY.  “it is?” I said, sarcastically. “Then what flight am I sitting in here at RDU?” I concluded Delta’s computers were fritzing out.  Even being pretty much dead drunk, I knew I was in trouble then, because I could see the cancellation of my flight in the headlights.

Sure enough, after two hours sitting on the runway, the captain said they were going to the barn—back to the gate—and there to await instructions.  As he started the engines, I managed to get a Delta Elite agent on the phone again and rebooked my flights for the next morning.  Thank God I had a confirmed first class fare booked!  She said there were zero coach seats because tens of thousands of folks were stranded in Atlanta.

At first she tried to persuade me to stay with my flight because she promised it would, sooner or later that night, fly to Atlanta.  And would Delta pay for my hotel room once there? I asked.  “Oh no!” was the answer, “Not when it’s not our fault [weather]. But I could get you on a flight to New Orleans at 8:55 AM in first class if you go.”

“Why in the world would I do that?” I retorted (plastered, yes, but I wasn’t stupid). “There will be zero hotel rooms because of the mass strandings, and I’ll be sleeping on the floor of the Atlanta airport terminal all night.”

“Well,” she said, “If you want to leave RDU on a 6:00 AM flight tomorrow, you can still connect to the 8:55 AM flight in ATL, all in first class because you have a first class ticket.”

Naturally I took that deal as the best plan.  I was just getting the agent to confirm my seat assignments as the plane’s door opened, finally back at the gate, and I walked off with luggage, out of the terminal, and took a cab home.  Paying $35 for a taxi was better than sleeping in the ATL airport or paying for an expensive hotel room near ATL.

Of course I was hurting pretty badly by then.  No food, just hard liquor (I usually drink wine or beer), and exhausted and looking at having to get up before 4:00 AM—hungover, no doubt—for my 6:00 AM flight.  I gobbled down some calories as soon as I walked in the door of my house and then tried to print my boarding passes for the next morning’s flights.

But the Delta system wouldn’t let me.  There they were in plain sight on my screen, the two first class seats that Delta had rebooked for me the following morning, but their system would not even let me check in.

Once again I phoned the Delta Elite line, this time waiting for 16 minutes on hold due to the tens of thousands of poor travelers stuck in Atlanta because of the thunderstorms over the field and all trying desperately to reach a DL agent to get themselves rebooked.  When finally the weary-sounding voice of the agent came on the line, she was very sympathetic—bless her heart—and said she’d have my record unlocked in a jiffy.

Except that she didn’t.  Neither did her supervisor, nor even her supervisor’s boss.  Like me, they could see that I was rebooked and had my seats, but they could not check me in or free up the system to let me print boarding passes.

This went on for about an hour, and by then it was past 10:00 PM.  I was spent and already feeling awful—hangover headache and too tired to keep moving.  The agents all three said they’d documented my record and to go to the counter in the morning when they opened at 4:00 AM to get checked in and receive my boarding passes.  They would keep working on it, they promised.  I gratefully hung up and dropped into bed.

At 3:30 AM the following morning I arose and showered, feeling like a bus had run me down, but I managed to get in the car as my wife—a saint!—drove me to RDU again.  I arrived at 4:15 AM and went promptly to the first class/DL Elite line.  A very nice agent greeted me with cheer and assured me my travails of the previous night were past because he was going to have my boarding passes to me in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

I wish he’d been right.  55 minutes after I had presented myself at the DL counter, with the help of two other counter agents, one a supervisor, and an unseen manager on the radio somewhere else, my boarding passes were finally issued at 5:10 AM. I was by then a nervous wreck  Not one agent had any clue why my record was locked up, though they could clearly see it.  Finally the unseen manager on the radio guessed that the night managers the previous evening might not have removed me from the long-delayed flight.  Sure enough they had not.  I was showing as having “flown” on that flight.  It took 20 minutes for them to untangle that snafu—theirs, of course, not mine—and finally print my boarding passes.

By the time I got through the long TSA Pre-Check queue (yes, too many people are now allowed in Pre-Check, making it as slow, almost, as the regular security line), and ran to my gate, the flight was boarding.  I was relieved but perplexed at the bizarre screw-up and and trying to brush off the accompanying anxiety.

RDU Pre-Check queue
RDU Pre-Check queue (and there were just as many waiting behind me)

I had only a Coke Zero on each of my two flights to New Orleans—no alcohol!  When I arrived in Atlanta, the hordes of travelers who’d been there since the night before made the concourse almost impossible to traverse.  I was glad I’d paid $150 extra for the assurance of first class seats.  Had I not, I would never have reached New Orleans to see my friends.  As it was, my six day trip, which had been cut to four, was now three days and a bit.  I made the most of it.

But when I went to the New Orleans airport for my return flights to Raleigh, Delta put me through the wringer again.  I mean, why limit the pain to just one half of the trip when you can do it both ways, right?  I’ll explain next week.

One thought on “Even a paid first class ticket is no guarantee that things won’t go awry

  1. It sounded like a ‘party flight’ turned into disaster. Hate flying with a hangover (LAX to Tonga via HNL) in 1988. Being much younger then didn’t make it hurt less!

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