The biggest annual transit conference is taking place in Vancouver this year. I signed up to go and checked airfares on various carriers. All comparable, so I opted for Delta because my SkyMiles Lifetime Platinum status comes with small perks like advance seat assignments and possible upgrades. But booking through Delta.com, I hit a brick wall on the flight leg to YVR on Delta partner, WestJet.
First, a little perspective: I haven’t had much business reason to go to Canada. Don’t get me wrong; I really like and admire the Canadians from what I’ve read and heard about the country and their way of life. I just know the best options to fly to the rest of the world because I’ve worked in so many places overseas.
But, oddly, not to our next-door neighbor, Canada.
Or, as one of my colleagues who has often worked in Calgary calls it, “Cold Mexico.”
Matter of fact, during my long consulting career I had just one Canadian client, and that was near Regina, Saskatchewan. Getting there and back constituted my sole round trip flight to the Great White North in over 35 years of consulting.
Which explains why I lack experience with Canadian airlines, especially those that partner with U.S. carriers. Like WestJet, a titular Delta partner.
So when I saw that Delta.com was offering me a good schedule and fare RDU/LAX/YVR on the outbound, with the Los Angeles to Vancouver flight on WestJet, it didn’t set off any alarm bells. I thought it was just like all those other “Operated by” notes that are shown on airline booking sites. Every mainline carrier has contracts with smaller carriers, as for ubiquitous commuter jet routes, and that’s what I thought WestJet was.
And when I book through Delta.com with itineraries that include little-known “Operated by” carriers, those flight legs are transparent to me in the sense that I can select the seats I want on the “Operated by” airlines just the same as selecting seats on the mainline flight legs. And I can stand by for upgrades on those rinky-dink airlines just the same as on mainline Delta flights.
But not on WestJet, as I found out the hard way.
As I finalized my flights on Delta.com, no asterisk or bold “SPECIAL NOTE!” warned me that if I assented to buy the itinerary with one or more WestJet legs that I would be unable to get seat assignments or to stand by for upgrades—not even to Comfort+, let alone to First Class. I only discovered that fact after I had bought and paid for my ticket.
Why wouldn’t Delta.com let me choose my seat on the WestJet flight? I didn’t know, but I was in a great hurry to get back to work and had to leave my itinerary purchased and confirmed for, but with no seat assigned on the LAX/YVR flight.
A couple of weeks later I finally had time to get back to it. I phoned the Delta Elite line. The experienced rep tried to get a seat for me on the LAX/YVR WestJet leg using her special powers, but she was also flummoxed: no dice.
In frustration she called WestJet directly, waited on hold for 17 minutes, and was told, finally, that Delta passengers, no matter their elite level, had no juice on WestJet whatsoever and could not get seat assignments until the day of the flight at the airport. Which of course would mean center seats in the last row. No upgrade possibility, either.
The Delta Elite line rep was as stunned as I was to learn this. Luckily—and that’s all it was: luck—she took pity on me and allowed me an “exception” (no extra fare) to change my outbound routing to Delta flights—three legs instead of two, but all Delta flights, nonetheless. By then, however, all the Comfort+ seats were gone, and I had to settle for Main Cabin seats.
Well, at least I have seats now.
Before it was canceled, the WestJet flight even had its own unique Record Locator code different from Delta’s, which caused confusion and lost time finding the WestJet itinerary in their computer when my rep finally got through to the WestJet agent after the long wait. According to the Delta Elite rep, the PNRs were not even cross-referenced by number. Some partnership, I thought.
It seemed crazy for Delta to partner with an airline that would not even normalize its passenger computer records, let alone allow its best customers to choose seats or to stand by for customary upgrade possibilities, yet show the WestJet flights on Delta.com as if they were the same as all other Delta flights. A Google search quickly brought up this eloquent 2013 blog post by marketing professional Sam Fiorella which described pretty much the same experience I had. Here are selected excerpts from Mr. Fiorella’s narrative:
How I Lost My Earned Benefits
WestJet does not recognize the loyalty and status earned by the thousands of dollars spent with Delta, and so does not offer the benefits promised to Delta’s Medallion members.
For example, when the flight is operated by WestJet, we cannot view seats, select a seat, or even check in online because the flight is operated by a code-share partner. We are also unable to do this on the WestJet site because it’s a Delta-issued ticket.
We can’t even check in at the airport kiosks and so are forced to queue up at the airport customer service counters in order to be manually checked in and assigned a seat.
I’ve spent up to 45 minutes in WestJet customer service queues at the Toronto airport, just to check in – something that I could have done in seconds online or at a Kiosk if the flight was operated by the airline I purchased the ticket from.
Adding insult to injury, because we can’t pre-select a seat or digitally check in – for free or for a fee – we’re sent to the land of misfit toys: middle seats and last-row-by-the-washroom seats.
Once we finally get our boarding passes to the worst seats on the airplane, we cannot access priority lanes or early boarding benefits earned by our status and loyalty with Delta because the boarding passes are issued by WestJet which, again, doesn’t recognize our status. In short, we’re being penalized. The promised benefits that were to be extended to loyal customers who have spent thousands of dollars with Delta, aren’t available.
In fact, WestJet seems to consider Delta customers less valuable than its own customers who purchased the lowest possible ticket fares. Those customers are afforded the option to view online seat maps, purchase an upgraded economy seat, and check in online. Even pay-for-service options are not made available to customers of WestJet’s “valued partner airline.”
That happened in 2013? Six years ago? And yet Delta has done nothing in six years to fix this situation. That’s inexcusable customer treachery.
In other words, about the norm for a U.S. airline.
Lesson learned: Never book Delta-WestJet.