Delta Apologizes After Kicking Family Off Plane

Filed Under: Delta

Yesterday I shared the story of the family kicked off a Delta flight from Maui to Los Angeles. The family had flown to the island with their youngest son as a lap child, but decided that maybe that wasn’t the best option on the way home. So they sent their older son ahead on an earlier flight, thinking they could use his original seat for the younger son and his car seat.

The plan probably seemed very logical to the family, and possibly, to most people. But airlines tie seats to actual passengers, so when the older son didn’t board the flight — he was already at home — the computer rightly considered him a no-show and the airline moved to reassign his seat to another passenger. As I explained, there were ways for the family to have pulled this off, but they require a more in-depth understanding of the subtleties of airline reservations systems.

So even though the airline was technically in the right, the agents predictably handled it horribly. They threatened to throw the parents in jail and put the kids in foster care if they didn’t get off the plane. Of course, we have a video of much of the interaction.


Delta apologies for kicking family off plane

Well, Delta has now issued a formal apology which is posted to the news section of their website:

We are sorry for the unfortunate experience our customers had with Delta, and we’ve reached out to them to refund their travel and provide additional compensation. Delta’s goal is to always work with customers in an attempt to find solutions to their travel issues. That did not happen in this case and we apologize.

To me, the apology is appropriate in that they acknowledge that they failed to help the family find a solution. They are apologizing for the way they handled the situation, rather than causing the situation itself. And that’s basically the issue here.

The interesting thing to me, however, is that even though the video only surfaced yesterday, this incident occurred over a week ago. It makes me wonder if Delta was aware of the issue prior to the video being made public, and whether they had proactively tried to offer compensation and an apology to the family. I’m guessing not.

It seems to me that airlines should have an internal team that reviews all situations like this when the police are called. Sort of like a centralized replay center that the NBA and NFL have adopted. Of course, that would require innovative thinking, and really the only things the airlines want to innovate these days are ways to cram more seats on a plane.

At any rate, Delta is now saying they are going to refund the cost of their tickets and issue compensation, though terms were not disclosed. In a twist of luck, United actually got to transport them home. 

Bottom Line

When I was growing up, my mom taught me that it’s possible to be technically right but still end up wrong. And that’s what happened in this case. Delta had all the facts on their side and a legal document, the contract of carriage, to prove it. They just needed to handle the situation in a calm and respectful manner, and none of this would have happened. But that’s basically true of all of these viral airline incidents of late.

I’m glad I’m not an airline CEO. Because if I was, I don’t think I could sleep at night knowing that I have thousands and thousands of employees around the world, any of which might decide to play lawyer or police on any given day.

Do you think Delta’s apology was appropriate?

  1. ” They just needed to handle the situation in a calm and respectful manner, and none of this would have happened.”

    This is a HUGE assumption. Airline employees should handle things in a calm and respectful manner because that’s a necessary part of being in the customer service & safety industry. But this trend of painting every crew interaction in black and white is pathetic.

    The video starts way into the interaction, but it’s unlikely the very first thing Delta said was “Lap your kid or you’re going to jail!” They were probably calm and respectful for the first minute or so, at least, and the passenger still refused to comply with crew instructions!

    Where is the disrespect in the viral furor about the guy who used the restroom contra crew instructions?

    Maybe the media should stop spreading this rumor that you own a ticket and have a right to fight with the crew whenever you want. Crews need to be better equipped to properly handle situations when they get out of control, but passengers continue to escalate these things.

  2. Very appropriate. Really, the only issue here is how the airline handled the situation that arose. They handled it callously and cruelly, and deserve to be out some money for it. Reimbursing the passenger was a huge gesture and could sway the public opinion back on this since it was not technically their fault that the passenger did not have a valid ticket for travel.

  3. It’s truly unfortunate that the delta staff handled that situation so poorly. Ideally the employees would have looked at the boarding passes in question and calmly explained why they cannot simply give a ticket they’ve purchased to someone else. Threatening them with arrest was impractical, because stupidity sadly remains legal (otherwise most of congress would be locked up). Obviously the issue was how Delta handled things, and my fear is that many media outlets are conflating this with “the family doing nothing wrong.” I very much challenge the idea that their plan was “logical to most people.” If one must give a name for a reservation, the natural assumption would be that to change the name requires changing the reservation. When booking a ticket, airlines even make you confirm the names on the tickets are correct and note that changing them will incur a fee.

  4. The problems that I have with this are too numerous to list here, but I just have to ask…How many times, and how many ways does an Airline representative need “to handle the situation in a calm and respectful manner” before things are taken to another level…???There is absolutely NO GUARANTEE that as you say, “none of this would have happened. But that’s basically true of all of these viral airline incidents of late”…

    How long are you, or anyone who thinks this family is the victim here willing to be delayed while a nice, sweet, a$$ kissing gate agent calmly asks over and over for someone who is BREAKING THE RULES to stop…How important does that connection have to be that you might be missing…???When you start to carry this kind of behavior to its logical [or illogical] conclusion, it is leading to continued rule breaking by passengers and agents/crew who are not willing to intervene less the court of public opinion find them guilty of not asking the passenger to stop in a demure enough manner…

  5. Airlines are nearly always justified due to buried “terms and conditions” in tickets.

    But really? There was no name match to the ticket from minute they checked in, they should never have been allowed to get on the plane, period. Fault: Delta.

  6. Ken — You’re right, the situation was going to happen regardless of how it was handled. I guess I meant that if the agent had handled it calmly and respectfully, we wouldn’t be hearing about it.

  7. You are right, this is an issue of airlines employees acting inappropriately, it’s not a contract of carriage issue. These problems are repeatedly caused by airline employees WAY overstepping their boundaries and trying to make themselves God. Until that problem is fixed, this will keep happening, and in the meantime I’m going to enjoy the schadenfreude at the expense of the airlines. You created this mess, you get to live in the consequences, welcome to the world of cell phone video cameras and viral media.

  8. Delta followed the letter of the law and their conditions of carriage. In this case, however, the effect was Delta maneuvering to generate double revenue from the same seat. The non-refundable fare paid by the family and the passenger Delta wound up accommodating in the same seat.

    Just because Delta has written their conditions to allow this situation, doesn’t mean it was just or right. Delta should have apologized and made it right.

  9. @Jeff M The baby was allowed through because it was supposed to be infant in arms. Not sure how it’s Delta’s fault that until the baby got on board under “baby in arms” and the dad decided to use his oldest son’s no-show seat. The youngest baby was supposed to be sitting on the mother’s lap, as they originally bought their tickets and the seat was rightfully supposed to be given to someone else since the oldest son was a no-show.

  10. Given that we live in an era where any and all confrontations with customers are likely to be recorded and uploaded to the internet, airlines really need to take efforts to train their employees to prevent situations like this from happening. I agree with Travis that the passengers were totally in the wrong here, but its not the customer’s job to avoid and defuse tense situations, its the employee’s. Crewmembers should never ratchet up the situation and they can’t just go straight to kicking passengers (with or without the assistance of law enforcement) off the plane because they can’t be bothered to try everything they can to resolve the situation without resorting to that. Sure there are going to be times when the crewmember has done everything they can to get the passenger to comply with the rules and said customer still won’t oblige, and then removal will be necessary, but there is a lot that said crewmember could do to prevent that from happening. In this case, going from zero to yelling/threatening the customer was a problem (in fact, I can’t really think of any circumstance where using that tone of voice with a customer would be appropriate) and it also appears (based on the customers’ complete non-understanding of the reasons why they couldn’t use the seat) that little to no effort was made to explain the situation to them. I get that it might be hard because the rules are complicated (as in this circumstance), but its literally their job to be able to do stuff like that. If airlines and their employees don’t get it through their heads that they actually have to make a concerted effort to defuse these situations instead of immediately (and lazily) invoking their right to kick people off flights, this is going to keep happening.

    Finally, I must note that I’m not so sure that anything could have been done in this particular case that wouldn’t have led to the passengers being removed. They seemed pretty unwilling to comply and I doubt that any amount of calm/clear explanation would have changed that. If that had been the case, Delta would have owed them nothing and been totally within its rights to remove them. Unfortunately for Delta, the second their crewmember started yelling/threatening the customers they lost the moral high ground and deserve the bad press and other consequences they get.

  11. Yeah, everyone is sympathetic to the family. But, what if Delta was very nice, talked a lot, soothed the family for a long time so that when the plane took off many people missed their connections? What then? All the sympathy would turn on a dime. I think dad knew precisely what he was doing. He tried a gambit that did not work, but would not relent. No sympathy. All this social media second guessing is laughable.

  12. Ever watched the Seinfeld episode with the ‘soup Nazi’. That’s what airlines sometimes remind me of. I understand the flight was not fully booked. From good customer service perspective, would you not have offered an empty seat to a passenger with a lap child anyway? Even if the seat next was already assigned they could’ve asked that passenger to move or offered a courtesy upgrade to first class. So many options, but no, let’s just make a threat!
    I can’t know for sure, but I honestly think that passenger thought that seat was his to keep. Why else would he purchase another ticket to fly his son home separately. Doesn’t make sense does it?

  13. The family tries to pull a clearly illegitimate, if not outright illegal, a scam, gets caught and DL is forced to apologize by the “bad optics”, despite being right on the law. Can’t make this stuff up!

  14. “The family tries to pull a clearly illegitimate, if not outright illegal, a scam”

    It is debatable whether the family realized it was “illegitimate.” And it most certainly was NOT illegal. Not meeting a contractual obligation is not illegal.

    The problem is not so much what the family tried to pull. It is that the FA threatened them with jail and their kids being put in foster care. What kind of person thinks that saying things like this is an acceptable way to get someone to behave according to their instructions?

  15. Passenger tries to essentially steal a seat the kid wasn’t entitled to, and the airline apologizes for it! Boy its a great day to be alive!

  16. @snic — It is easy to blame the FA for the so-called “threat”, but give the family a pass as “debatable that [they] realized it was “illegitimate””. However, the fact remains that it was utterly boneheaded for them to think that they were entitled to a seat whose named occupant was a no-show precisely because they’d knowingly put him on an earlier flight. Theythen compounded problem by arguing with the FA or GA even after it was revealed to them that what they tried to pull was not legit!

    As to “What kind of person thinks that saying things like this is an acceptable way to get someone to behave…”, hello!, nearly every society, including those in purportedly “civilized world”, is built around that notion, otherwise how do you explain having prisons, or even “grounding”, sending to the principal’s office or putting in isolation kids that misbehave?

  17. This is a serious and sincere question: are FAs and ground crew regularly trained in dispute resolution, problem-solving, or whatever dealing with the public is now called?
    Long ago I consulted for an airline on how to cope with the general terror that passengers and crew were experiencing related to AIDS — before the ways of transmission were discovered. People sincerely believed AIDS was transmitted by breathing (like tuberculosis) or touching something (upholstery) that someone else had touched. Day after day, FAs faced demands to change seats (e.g. 20-30 people on a flight) and were hammered with relentless questions about sanitation standards on an aircraft.
    Much of that was simply not resolvable in any literal sense. There were no big ANSWERS! in those days.
    What was finally seen as paramount was people-coping skills, recognizing what was taking place, knowing what was remediable in a situation and what was not. Procedures and guidelines were developed so that the FAs were not thrown onto the front-lines with no support or guidance whatsoever.
    Currently so many of the comments and arguments about these incidents seem #1. blaming, #2. legalistic, #3. Monday-morning quarterbacking, and #4. largely without insight into the immediate experience of ordinary people thrown into complicated, nasty situations.
    But, holy cow, there are far more ways to deal with these situations than full-scale all-out confrontation…every time, over and over

  18. @Chris-I agree with Chris.

    You don’t know how long the crew was respectful until things got ugly. It must be really hard working with the general public every day.

  19. What if Dad and Mom had refused to leave and had to be physically removed from the aircraft? Would they be detained or sent to jail?

  20. Unfortunately there is a militarised culture in the United States of law enforcement agencies defending corporations. corporations should do their own dirty work. If their employees cause confrontational situations, the corporation should have its own trained staff to resolve things. Why are government funded police forces being used to do the work of profiteering corporations? That’s socialism if I’ve every seen it. Airlines are capitalising their gains but socialising their problems. It seems that the rights of corporations in the US come above any rights of an individual. What a perfect deal for shareholders; what a terrible deal for the rest of you who are paying taxes to fund the police forces.

  21. “So even though the airline was technically in the right, the agents predictably handled it horribly. They threatened to throw the parents in jail and put the kids in foster care if they didn’t get off the plane. Of course, we have a video of much of the interaction.”

    This is oxymoronic. How on earth can Delta be technically in the right if one of their agents threatened a paying passenger and their family. I think going down the “airline was technically in the right, but….” is a very slippery slope. The reason the airlines are ‘technically in the right’ are because of the onerous rules and environment that they themselves have created.

    While it is nice that Delta apologized to the passenger, the real proof in the pudding would be what they did to the employee. I’m not saying she should be fired, but if she wasn’t retrained or reprimanded, is their apology anything more than lip service?

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