In a recent blog post I documented how Delta had lost $10,000 of my money on a single international itinerary after dumping my carefully selected Economy Comfort seats four times over several months.  I should have expected, I guess, equal misery for domestic itineraries.  Sure enough, last week all my family’s seats were lost a mere two days after booking four Delta tickets RDU/LAX/SFO/RDU because of an insignificant flight number change (not a real schedule change).

This is yet another example of Delta knocking out seats when there is any kind of change at all, in this case merely a flight number change.  Since we are traveling in March on this particular itinerary (a college visit trip to the West Coast), I am still entitled to complimentary Economy Comfort seats for me and my family, and I had selected seats to keep us together.  Yet the flight number change triggered Delta’s robot IT system to dump all our EC seats, and we were placed in seats way back on the plane.  Though I went into the Delta record online at once to change us back to Economy Comfort, only a few seats were left, and I was just barely able to get four seats together for my family in the last row.

When I phoned a Delta supervisor to inquire whether Delta was planning to improve or eliminate its robotic software doing this to every itinerary when even the teensiest change occurs, I was told that the airline will never go back to real human beings making such decisions and that the system in place is now fully in charge.  The supervisor explained that when itinerary changes occur, the software logic “roams” the airplane, looking first to find suitable seats for people with disabilities, then assigns seats to persons with infants, then to children traveling alone, then to “certain special individuals” which I took to mean Air Marshalls flying incognito, and finally assigns whatever seats are left to Diamonds and Platinums.  The system is supposed to match preferences like aisle seats, but if none are available, it may assign windows or centers.  However, if an Elite flyer, even a Diamond, is traveling on the same record as a non-Elite passenger, then the software’s default logic assigns seats according to the customer with the least status, pulling everyone on the same record down to that lowest level.

After all those groups have been satisfied, then the system assigns seats to award seat flyers, to “general” Skymiles members (those with no elite status), and to customers not even enrolled in the frequent flyer program.  In other words, buying your ticket way ahead of time may get you a reasonable fare and your initial choice of preferred seats, but it no longer guarantees you a good seat on Delta if there is an itinerary change.

The software logic does this every time there is any change at all.  This means that those logic classes above will always get preferred seats ahead of Elite flyers if there are itinerary changes even if they booked at the last minute and had initially selected poor seats.  Thus Delta Elite customers who bought early with the expectation that their initially-selected preferred seats would be honored are penalized by the software if any itinerary changes occur.

When I observed to the supervisor that this makes seat assignments virtually worthless, she reluctantly agreed, but stated cheerfully, “You can always buy up to Comfort+ which will guarantee your reassigned seat will at least be in the Comfort+ section.”  I guess she doesn’t realize that the fare difference between the new “Main Cabin” and “Comfort+” categories is often a couple of hundred dollars or more.  Between Raleigh and Billings, for instance, the Delta fare delta between Main Cabin and Comfort+ is $180 round trip.

By the supervisor’s logic I could guarantee myself even more peace of mind if I just paid for First Class.  Or better still, I could call NetJets.

Delta is reportedly working to improve the automated robot system, but there are no promises that the system logic will ever be as good as a human’s, and the airline won’t say when improvements might take place or exactly what they may be.

This is stupid.  We cannot even count on keeping our seats any longer?  This corporate decision to save money through blanket automation effectively waters down one of the elemental benefits of air travel: a confirmed seat assignment.  This smacks of a Ryanair trick.  If Delta’s automated system is going to do this on every single itinerary, and it appears that it will, then Delta customers are always going to be well and truly screwed, strengthening my resolve to book away from Delta entirely.

To make matters worse, I ran into more IT problems on Delta when I purchased a ticket recently RDU/BIL.  My Billings itinerary straddles the magic May 15 cutoff date when Delta implements its policy and fare changes that make getting into Economy Comfort seats (to be called Comfort+ after May 15) an “upgrade” for Diamonds and Platinums rather than the benefit it is today.  I leave Raleigh on May 13 and return May 16.  On the outbound, I was able to select Economy Comfort seats, but on the two homebound flights I was forced to click the “upgrade” button.

But the online system didn’t work, causing me to spend a lot of time on three long phone calls trying to get the “upgrade” button functioning correctly so I could be considered for an “upgrade” to Comfort+.  After those exasperating calls, none successful, I finally spent 51 minutes on the phone with another Delta supervisor.  By then I was exhausted and asked her to just please upgrade me into first class and be done with it.  Here’s what I learned from that waste of time:

  • Neither she nor anyone above her in the rez offices “is empowered to upgrade customers into first class any more” on either domestic or international flights.
  • The Delta system is supposed to automatically allow me as a Platinum to select Comfort+ seats immediately on the two homebound flights of my May 16 BIL/RDU itinerary after I paid for my ticket, but that functionality isn’t working. Therefore the supervisor was going to “override the system” to put me in Comfort+.  She is empowered to do that, she said, but not to upgrade me to First. That sounds to me suspiciously like the current first class upgrade benefit will end for flyers who don’t pay for a Comfort+ seat.
  • When I checked the itinerary the following day, I was still in the back of the plane and still unable to check the button for an “upgrade” to Comfort+. I didn’t call again because I was too frustrated.  The third day after the call I checked once more and saw that I had finally been assigned Comfort+ seats, which I changed to ones I preferred.  Of course if there is a subsequent itinerary change, the Delta robot will kick me out of the seats I selected.

I also called American Express to cancel our Delta SkyMiles Amex Platinum credit cards. As Joe Brancatelli explained in a recent column, the value of frequent flyer programs, including especially SkyMiles, is now significantly diluted by hefty boosts in mileage requirements for awards.

So, what good are the miles “earned” from the associated credit card? Heck, whether purchased or award travel, I can’t even count on keeping the seats I select on Delta flights anymore and have to pray that I will be “upgraded” to Comfort+ for travel after May 15.

Bottom line for me, as I have said several times, is to book away from Delta even domestically now.  We know that Delta is going to keep taking things away from its Elite customers, with the result of making life on the road more expensive, ever harder, and less comfortable.  Delta execs just don’t care anymore because they don’t have to, at least not as long as they can sell every seat at whatever price points they decide. The core lesson here is that Delta now runs over people and wants us to pay for what it once told us that we could have for free.