Last week I extolled the value of my travel agent after Delta left me hanging on a Delta itinerary booked with their partner, China Eastern, to Kunming which begins soon.  My agent’s careful oversight when checking my record 10 days before departure brought to light a serious misconnect that the Delta system had failed to detect.

Dealing with the uncertainty of rebooking on a different flight to correct the error so close in time to the itinerary dates was stressful and time-consuming, but when it was done, I breathed a sigh of relief because I thought that was the end of it.

It wasn’t. Delta has since screwed up yet again.

China Eastern called me directly six days prior to my flight to Kunming (via DTW and PEK) to inform me that the PEK connection time between the arriving Delta flight from DTW and the CE flight to KMG violates the two hour minimum required between connecting flights at Beijing Airport.

The CE agent politely but firmly let me know that Delta should have caught this, and that DL had to fix it because it’s their ticket, not CE’s.

I mused to the China Eastern agent that I still had about an hour and 45 minutes to connect, and the onward flight departs from PEK’s Terminal 2, same terminal my Delta flight from Detroit arrives to, and thus I wondered if it was really a big deal.

The problem, she explained, is that arriving U.S. passengers to PEK Terminal 2 must clear an inbound security screen, then clear customs and immigration at Beijing Airport, and then go back through another security screen before eventually locating the Terminal 2 gate for the China Eastern domestic flight, in my case PEK/KMG.

The agent suggested an alternative CE flight scheduled almost four hours after my arrival that arrived Kunming at about 10:20 PM.  That didn’t look like a great plan since I am on another flight (different airline) early the following morning Kunming to Lijiang.  It wouldn’t give me much time to get to an airport hotel, get some rest, and get back again to the airport the following morning.

Taking the later connection would also add to the time en route from Raleigh, making it almost 27 hours before arriving so late to Kunming, It sounded tiring and stressful, especially since the CE flight is in ordinary coach and will be very uncomfortable.  I booked Delta’s new premium economy cabin, which the airline has dubbed Premium Select, to Beijing, but China Eastern has no such thing as Comfort+ or Premium Select on its internal China flights.

I was also worried about getting a seat as far forward as possible, and on an aisle.  Usually aisle seats near the front are long gone on U.S. domestic flights a week before departure.  I had been able to snag a good seat on the original (early) connection, but that was now void.  I even considered paying to upgrade to business class on the PEK/KMG leg, but was told segment pricing wasn’t allowed by Delta for my itinerary.

Thus, I hung up with China Eastern and called the Delta Elite desk.  Speaking with an agent there, we together considered my options, with me leading the conversation:

Option one: Take an earlier Delta flight to PEK?  But nothing with Premium Select (PE) seating was flying from any DL hub other than Detroit —the A350 plane I had booked was the only choice in the RDU/(connection)/PEK market.

Option two: Go the night before on later flights and spend the night in Beijing before connecting?  Nope, didn’t work, either, for the same reason as above.

Option three: Change itinerary to fly Delta RDU/JFK, then China Southern JFK/CAN/KMG in either premium economy or business class?  Did appear to work, but the idea was a non-starter with Delta because of what they determined was the more cost-effective (for them) later connection on China Eastern PEK/KMG that the China Eastern agent had suggested.

Option four: Cancel and get a full refund?  Yes, Delta would have done that, but then no trip and 100% loss of money prepaid for air, train, and accommodation in China.

Option five: Eventually, I ran out of time—and steam—and I caved to Delta’s pushing me to take the later PEK/KMG flight on China Eastern.  When I asked the Delta Elite Line agent why their systems had failed me yet again, he admitted to ignorance, but said my experience was not unusual.  He clammed up after that.

These systemic connection problems with a big established partner like China Eastern don’t inspire confidence in Delta.  My itinerary is hardly exotic or complicated.  Kunming is well-known, busy, and a popular destination in China.  It has a long collaborative history with the USA, too, since it was at the end of the Burma Road supply line during World War II, and Claire Chennault and his famous Flying Tigers used Kunming as their base in China before December 7, 1941.  There’s even a museum in Kunming which honors the Flying Tigers who gave their lives for China.

Yet Delta’s system couldn’t get the routine connections in either direction with long-time partner China Eastern coordinated.  This despite Delta buying 3.55% of China Eastern for $450 million in 2015 and bragging in the press release about how the two carriers “wish, through excellent operation and international cooperation, to optimize customer experience… .”

Delta dropped the ball not once, but twice, on this trip, the first time detected by my travel agent, and the second time discovered by China Eastern itself, rather than by Delta.  That isn’t acceptable by any standards.  Not to mention the three hours I wasted getting Delta’s mistake fixed in my itinerary.  It makes me think Delta isn’t really committed to “optimize customer experience” as quoted above.

Instead, it seems likely that Delta and China Eastern are more firmly devoted to the final words in that same statement quoted above, namely, that their strategic agreement “promotes the revenue growth of both parties.”

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