My Four Days of Hell with Delta Air Lines (And Thank the Heavens for Tina Fey)

Tuesday, April 26

I arrived at Philadelphia International Airport with my Delta Air Lines itinerary in hand. My schedule was to fly to Nice, France, and enjoy one day of vacation before getting aboard a boat for a Yachting magazine article. The boat would then take me to Genoa, Italy, where I would work at the city’s annual boat show.

I got in line for check-in at 4 p.m., handed over my passport, received my boarding pass, and went to Gate D16. My flight boarded on time, and we were in line for take-off by 6:15. The line of planes was long—at least 15 ahead of us, the pilot said—so I popped a couple of Advil PM tablets. I figured I’d be groggy by the time we took off, and that by the time I finished dinner, I’d be out cold for the overnight flight.

About 20 minutes later, the plane veered left. The captain said there was a problem with our radio and that we were heading back to the gate for some quick maintenance.

Back at D16, we sat. The captain then informed us that the repairs were going to take at least more two hours, and since it was already after 8 p.m., we were going to de-plane with Delta buying us dinner in the terminal. “Just show your boarding pass to any of the vendors,” he announced. “They will scan it as currency.”

More than 100 passengers filed down the jetway in what must have looked like an onslaught to the oblivious pizza, sandwich, and Dunkin’ Donuts workers who were packing up for the night. It turns out that none of them had scanners, so all the passengers had to go back to the ticket counters and wait in line for Delta meal vouchers. Most passengers got $6 vouchers, which isn’t so much Delta paying for dinner as it is paying for a bottle of water. I must have overpaid for my ticket, because I got $12 in vouchers. It was just enough to cover a cheeseburger, fries, and a diet root beer, as long as I left the tip myself.

At the burger place, I sat next to a woman in her late 20s with long blonde hair and new-age athletic shoes. She looked like a person who had endurance, like maybe she was doing butt crunches while sitting on her barstool at that very moment. She said I looked tired, to which I replied that the Advil PMs were kicking in exactly as scheduled. She told me she was headed to the Cinque Terre for a few days of hiking. I tried to keep my eyes open and listen politely.

A little after 10 p.m., a Delta employee came over the terminal loudspeaker to say they were still trying to fix the radio, but it was taking too long and the flight crew had to be released at 11:30. If the radio wasn’t working by then, the flight would be canceled.

Around 11:15 p.m., I gave up hope and got in line at one of the four ticket counters Delta had opened near D16. There were only four passengers ahead of me—an American guy who looked as stoned as I felt, an Italian guy who looked like a mafia hitman but was toting around a light blue Winnie the Pooh carry-on, Miss Cinque Terre from the bar, and a stately looking Italian gentleman in full tie and jacket. I figured I’d be out of the terminal by midnight, lose my vacation day in Nice, but still make it to the boat in France on time to do the article. C’est la vie.

At first I kept to myself while waiting in line. Then the statesman’s family and friends started coming over to chat. They didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Italian, but we each knew enough that for the next two hours—yes, two hours standing in that line—I learned that his name is Luigi, his son was born in Philadelphia, the friend’s name is Barbara, her son thinks U.S. baseball is stupid compared with Italian soccer, and her son’s friend thinks Cape May, N.J., is the most impressive place in all of America. (He liked it way better than the Empire State Building.)  Luigi isn’t a fan of President Obama, but he likes him better than former President Bush, and he thinks Portugal is going to be the next country that crumbles in the global economic collapse. He was surprised that I knew who Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus were, because Americans don’t know anything about world history. He also thought it was funny to call me Kim Basinger, and to shout “Ghostbusters” at the airport cleaning crew because of the vacuums they wore on their backs.

By 1:15 a.m., Cinque Terre no longer looked like a person of endurance. The texts she kept sending so furiously to her husband parked outside no doubt read, “Please don’t divorce me. I’m about to kneecap Winnie the Pooh here if he doesn’t get his business sorted out already.” The Delta agents tried to remain positive, but they for some reason had the authority to do nothing other than simultaneously call Delta customer service and wait on hold for 30 to 90 minutes per passenger. Luigi got so aggravated that he had his family and friends fan out across the check-in area to the other gates, with one person in each of the four lines. They all panicked in what looked like a choreographed flash-mob dance when the airport initiated a full-scale test of the fire alarm with strobe lights and buzzers. “You know Dante?” Luigi asked me at that point. “Hell!  Hell!” he shouted at nobody in particular.

At 1:30 a.m., one of the other counters finally opened up, so I changed lines. The Delta agent’s nametag read “Ashley Oliver.” I assumed it was last name first and called him Oliver, and he corrected me, explaining that his mother really liked Ashley as a boy’s name. He then told me Delta hadn’t given any of its workers a dinner break that night, and asked me like Oliver Twist if I minded him eating a single piece of pineapple while he tried to help me.

Ashley Oliver Twist said I’d have to go to a hotel that night, then take a car the next day to JFK International Airport in New York to catch a flight from there to Nice. He was going to upgrade me to business class for my trouble, which I thought was nice. He gave me a fistful of Delta vouchers—taxi to a hotel, hotel itself, taxi from the hotel back to Philadelphia airport the next day, taxi from Philadelphia airport to JFK, $6 for breakfast tomorrow, $6 for lunch tomorrow, and my new itinerary. I couldn’t believe it, but he and I were both smiling when the process was completed at 1:45 a.m.

I next went downstairs to baggage claim, which looked like a refugee camp. There were people sitting on the luggage belts, on the floor, and on their suitcases, all with their heads in their hands, eyes drooping, and lips grimaced. I found my previously checked bag and went to Delta baggage services to use my voucher for a taxi to the Quality Inn in Gloucester City, N.J. The two exhausted Delta employees behind the desk snarled, as if I were yet another passenger who had been spit into their faces by a high-powered potato gun. The guy in charge was of Spanish descent based on his accent and jet black hair, and he was clearly frustrated with Winnie the Pooh, who had gotten down there just before me. The girl behind the counter was American with dyed orange hair and, I’m guessing, old Dead Kennedys CDs in her car, and maybe a tattoo of a guy with a knife through his neck somewhere north of her butt bone. I noticed Luigi’s friend Barbara and said, slowly so she could understand—“Barbara, are you okay?” She shrugged as if to say, “What is okay? Sure, in Italy we never board by zone and just shove our way to the front of the line while blowing smoke into other people’s faces, but this Delta Air Lines—this is insanity.”

By 2 a.m., after watching a cacophony of body language and posturing that would have made for an excellent episode of “Wild Kingdom” had you substituted Delta workers for safari animals, I discerned that the taxi drivers were causing a delay in getting passengers to the hotel. They were angry about the Delta vouchers, which apparently are about as welcome as counterfit Benjamins. So the taxi guys are screaming at the baggage guys about wanting better hourly wages, because, you know, a labor strike is exactly what Spanish and Orange Hair needed at 2 a.m. in the middle of a canceled international flight.

The cabbies also wanted an equal number of passengers in each cab, because then they got an equal number of vouchers and pay. But there were not enough passengers to divide evenly. It was me, some French chick who looked suicidal from the stress, and Luigi’s Italian friends—and Barbara was not splitting up her firstborn son from his cousin the way the cabbies wanted her to. So I looked at Spanish and said, “They’re a family. They travel together. This French lady and I, we will go in the other car.” Spanish then turned to the cabbies like a guy who had just received the holy tablets from Moses himself and hollered, “This is what the customer wants! Go to the hotel! Go to the hotel already!” I swear I heard my father’s voice screaming at me to go outside and play in 1978. And I swear the cabbies got the same look in their eyes that I used to get, the look that says, “If we don’t get out of here now, he’s going to smack us. And hard.”

So Frenchie and I followed a cabbie wearing a long-sleeved polyester shirt on an 85-degree day out to his cab, where he sat in the front seat, popped open the trunk, and proceeded to read the vouchers as if they were directions to a Siberian gulag from which he would never return. Frenchie and I, now well into hour 10 of our flight experience with Delta Air Lines, hurled our own bags into the trunk, closed it, and let ourselves into the cab’s back seat. I saw on the placard that Polyester’s name was Mohammed. “Okay, Mohammed,” I said. “Let’s go.”

Mohammed then got out of the car, fumbled with the vouchers, and said, “There is a problem. I must go back inside.”

“What problem?” I asked, raising my voice for the first time that evening. My decibel level rose to something appropriate for a Van Halen concert inside of a wind tunnel. “Get back in this car and drive us to the hotel already!”

Apparently, I do not have the ability to channel my Dad’s voice from 1978. Mohommed yelled back.

“I am just a cab driver!” he screamed, as if I had the power to change every one of the 40 years of choices that had gotten him to this moment in his life. “We need to be paid more!”

Back inside he walked. Frenchie looked at her Blackberry, so I tried to calm down and looked at mine. The clock read 2:45 a.m. There was not another taxi in sight. This was the moment that Mohommed chose to stage a workman’s coup like he was Che fucking Guevara.

About 10 minutes later, he came back out, got in the front seat, and said, like a German prison warden, “We go.” Fifteen minutes after that, we pulled into the Quality Inn’s parking lot. I got my own suitcase out of Mohommed’s trunk and made my way to the front desk, where Luigi’s friend Barbara was trying to check in. Her young boys were asleep on their luggage, and she looked like she was ready to launch the next era of the Napoleonic Wars.

Still trying to communicate with what little English she knew, she looked around at the less-than-optimal décor, then looked at me and whispered, like a frightened child, “Bed bugs?”

Wednesday, April 27

Checkout was at noon, and my taxi to JFK wasn’t coming until 1:45, so I settled in at the hotel lobby to work on my laptop for the interim. Within a few minutes, I was sweating. The thermostat read 83 degrees. I asked the Indian woman at the counter whether she could put the air conditioning on, since it was even hotter outside than it was inside. She told me that she really doesn’t notice the heat because she’s such a hard worker. I actually felt guilty for asking and sat back down with my laptop.

Around the time I had stripped down to my T-shirt and was fanning myself with The Wall Street Journal, a man arrived to fix the air conditioning. That was 15 minutes before my driver to JFK walked through the door. The two-hour drive got me there at 4 p.m., two full hours ahead of my flight. I walked straight up to Delta business check-in, where there was nobody else in line. It seemed like everything was finally going to be okay.

Denice—yes, spelled with a C, and wearing shimmery blue eye shadow on her dark brown eyelids—didn’t like the looks of my Passport. It had a small tear on the bottom left corner, a tear that had not stopped me from traveling to Sint Maarten and St. Barth’s on a previous assignment, a tear that the Homeland Security authorities at Philadelphia airport had assured me was no problem when it originally happened, and a tear that Delta’s own workers hadn’t even noticed when they checked me in and let me onto my flight the day before. But Denice with a C and the eyelids of a diner waitress named Pearl had a problem. She went to get her supervisor.

I figured the situation would straighten itself out and waited politely, but the Delta supervisor didn’t like my passport, either. Neither did the supervisor’s supervisor, who I was told faced a $25,000 fine if I got to France and some froggy customs agent decided to turn me around and send me back to the U.S. of A. They weren’t letting me on the plane.

My protestations got me nowhere. “Fine,” I said. “Just give me a voucher to get back to Philadelphia, where my car is.”

The supervisor told me that she really didn’t need to help me get back, since my passport is my responsibility and not Delta’s. She continued, “Only because Delta is already involved are we even helping you at all.”

I got the feeling she wanted me to thank her for her generosity, and I was trying to select the absolute choicest words in my mind when Denice with a C told me I’d also have to pay a change fee to re-book my flight for later in the week. And she refused to re-book me at all until I could confirm that I would have a new passport in hand.

For the next half-hour, I stood at the Delta business check-in counter with my cell phone.  I arranged through the State Department to get a same-day passport issued in Philadelphia the next afternoon. Then Denice with a C, apparently satisfied that I would have acceptable documentation on time, agreed to book me on a Saturday flight directly into Genoa. I’d literally missed the boat in France, but I would at least make it to the boat show on time. She thanked me for keeping my cool and waived the change fee. “But you’re back in coach,” she said. “We really can’t help that.”

She said the car back to Philadelphia would be there in a half-hour. My cell phone rang two minutes later. The driver was circling outside. Denice with a C rushed to hand over my new itinerary and said it was all I would need from here on out. I hustled outside to find the driver, lugging my bags behind me. We got maybe 10 minutes down the road when he said, “May I please have your voucher?”

Denice with a C hadn’t given me a voucher. Only an ulcer.

So Chakram, the driver, drove me back to Delta business check-in. I took my passport and my itinerary and left everything else in the car—wallet, Blackberry, Kindle, laptop, favorite red shoes, all of it. I sauntered up to Denice with a C and said, with tears in my eyes, “Hi. Remember me? The driver says you were supposed to give me a voucher.”

To her credit, instead of rolling her brown eyes, she lowered her blue eyelids and said, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I did that to you. I’m so very, very sorry.” You’d think she had just admitted to running over my dog with her car, she was so apologetic. She handed me the voucher as if it were a Faberge egg. I walked back outside to wait for Chakram, who was circling, or perhaps high-tailing it to an Atlantic City pawn shop with all my stuff.

Chakram was kind enough to drive me to my house in New Jersey, which is closer than Philadelphia airport and where my sister had agreed to bring me my car. My house is currently for sale because I am going through a divorce, and when I arrived, I realized that a Realtor had locked me out. My keys were with my car about a hundred miles away. I thought about wedging myself through my doggie door and wished I had Cinque Terre’s athleticism.

My sister arrived about 9:30 p.m. with my car and house keys. CNN was reporting massive tornadoes in Alabama, with scores of people injured and killed.

“See?” my sister said. “There is something worse than Delta Air Lines. You could be dead.”

Thursday, April 28

The Kinko’s woman took my new passport photo, whose caption would be appropriate under the Merriam-Webster’s entry for “righteous indignation.” It didn’t help that it was raining outside. My hair looked like a greasy Chinese noodle salad.

As I drove with my photos and documents to the passport center in Philadelphia, my Blackberry began buzzing like crazy. Those same tornadoes that had destroyed Alabama were now in New Jersey, and apparently directly over my house.

I watched CNN in the passport office for what seemed like years, until the tornado warning for my town was lifted and friends e-mailed me that my roof had been spared. By 2:45 p.m., I had my new passport in hand. The lady at the window asked me how the old one tore, and I explained that my puppy had somehow wormed his way into my zippered backpack while I was showering a few months ago. The lady was kind enough to tell me that I should not let my puppy eat the new passport. I refrained from saying, “Thanks for telling me that, or I might have put it in his food bowl tonight, along with your intestines after I kicked your ass.”

Friday, April 29

I was so exhausted from stress that I slept half the day. And I actually thought about changing my ticket yet again. Instead of trying to get to the boat show in Italy, I wondered if I should go to an ashram in India and start chanting to as many gods as possible.

Saturday, April 30

An overwhelming sense of doom followed me to the same Delta check-in where I had started four days earlier. I put my swanky new passport into the kiosk and waited. I felt like I had just pulled the lever on my own guillotine.

The kiosk couldn’t find my itinerary. I needed to see a gate agent.

A cheerful outside ticket agent said, “I can help you,” so I followed him into the swirl of fresh air and car exhaust. He punched my information into his computer, and the smile on his face turned to a frown. “Stay right here, miss,” he said.  And then he bolted inside as if I were a terrorist.

There might as well have been a spinning hamster wheel in my stomach at this point. It felt like the gerbil had broken free and clawed his way throughout my entire digestive tract.

The agent returned and said, “You have to go inside. They think they can get you out tonight, but, well, you have problems.”

I waited my turn, got to the front of the line, and a Delta woman took my passport. She put it into the kiosk. Same result. She then went behind the desk and started typing. After a few minutes of that, she said, “Wait right here.” She picked up a phone. She would not look me in the eye.

It occurred to me that I should actually look above my head and into the ceiling’s rafters, just in case any falling objects were teetering in my direction.

She never did explain to me what the problem was, but she returned nonchalantly, handed me a boarding pass, and sent me off to Gate D16, right where I’d tried to fly to France on Tuesday. I actually looked for Ashley Oliver Twist behind the counter. I felt like I should buy him dinner immediately, as a precautionary measure in what surely was going to be a long night.

We began boarding on time, but as I waited in line to hand over my boarding pass, I saw the Delta gate agent developing a stress headache. I got a little closer and realized that she was trying to communicate with a passenger who did not speak English.

“You are in an exit row,” she enunciated. “Do you understand? Eeeeegggss eeeaaatt roooowww. Are you willing to help in the event of an emergency?”

The poor passenger looked at the Delta agent like a first-time patron in a Jewish deli trying to understand the difference between Large and Zaftig. I thought it best to help out, and by help out, I mean claim the exit-row seat with extra leg room for my own weary back. “I’ll trade with her!” I shouted from a few passengers behind. “I’m traveling alone and I am willing to help in the event of an emergency!” You’d think I was calling out a winning card in Bingo.

I was a hero, at least to the Delta agents who looked like they’d had enough for the day. It was only 5:30 p.m., I told them, not even two rings into Dante’s circles of Hell.

Sunday, May 1

I landed in Paris and made my way to my connecting flight to Italy—which was delayed because of mechanical problems. I guess Delta just plain sucks on both sides of the pond.

That afternoon, I landed late in Genoa, got some work done at the boat show, and tried to find dinner. The only place open before 7 p.m. on a Sunday was an Italian restaurant run by Chinese people who had “Back to the Future” playing with subtitles on a plasma. I ordered a €3 jug of red table wine and decided to read my Kindle edition of “Bossypants” by Tina Fey.

I ended up laughing so hard, out loud, that I had to apologize to the nice Italian man dining at the table next to me.

“Bossypants,” I highly recommend. I can really appreciate a writer who makes people laugh about the real-life travails of a working woman.

Thursday, May 5

After doing my job all week at the boat show in Genoa, I told my Delta story to a table full of colleagues who also travel regularly for business—none of whom had ever experienced, or even ever heard of, anything like the nightmare that Delta had put me through.

One of the people at the table was a Russian woman who had a bit of a problem following my fast-paced English. I had talked about Barbara and the bed bugs, Luigi and the Ghostbusters, and Denice with a C, whom I’d described by making a motion across my left breast to indicate her nametag.

My Russian colleague said she understood exactly why Denice with a C had given me such a hard time. “She was, after all, a C,” she said, motioning across her own left breast. “I know, because I am an A. She saw that you are a D. She was jealous.”

5 comments

  1. omg, kim…you ALWAYS make me laugh with your writing! i felt like i was right there with you. sorry it was such a sucky trip, but it made for a great entry!

  2. very funny, Kim. the sad thing is that the Delta people all came off as trying to be helpful in their own limited ways.

  3. Sorry that you’re trip went so terribly–but it looks like the DL agents did really seem to care about you. Unfortunately this trip from hell could’ve happened on any airline. In fact, US Airways did it to me this summer and their employees didn’t give a rats petootie about me. DL’s usually much better with events like this, and their employees usually actually treat their customers with respect (I’m a DL FF, and fly weekly, so I’ve had experience :)). I would send DL an email at delta.com and try to explain what went wrong and they’ll definitely give you some type of compensation (whether it be a voucher or SkyMiles). Or you can call 404-715-2600 and select Option 8 (this is DL’s corporate help line that I’ve found to be very responsive).

  4. Delta’s customer care representative, who received a link to this blog post last week, has just e-mailed to say that she “cannot verify the nature of my concern” based on what I wrote.

    If I were a fiction writer, my editor would have fired me by now for telling a story that quite simply seems incredulous.

  5. Update: Delta has sent me a $250 travel voucher. Not a word of apology, not an acknowledgment of the thousands of dollars and several days that I lost. Just an e-mail worth $250 toward another flight.

    Yeesh.

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