I very recently returned from a trip to Saint Paul, Minnesota. I have not been traveling nearly as much since I started my new(ish) job but I was on the road a lot in my previous job, particularly near the end. I start with that background to emphasize that I have significant experience in the air travel arena and have seen the airlines pull just about every dirty trick in the book in the roughly fifteen years I have spent as a regular and semi regular business traveler.
That said I did not think they could sink any lower until this past Thursday. Most people are now well aware of the airlines pernicious approach to overbooking flights. Selling more seats than exist on any given flight has become the norm on virtually all high volume routes. I would venture to say, and I do not think this is at all controversial, that now more than half of each airlines scheduled flights are regularly oversold as a matter of practice. Which brings me to Delta and my return flight from Saint Paul, Minnesota to Louisville, KY. It’s derby weekend here in Louisville so I fully expected the flight to be jam packed. Throw in the unsettled weather across much of the eastern half of the country on thursday and continuing into Friday and it was a recipe for disaster.
Two gates were side by side with passengers obviously headed for the Derby. My flight to Louisville and another to Cincinnati, which is only about a 45 minute drive north. The gate area was absolute madness and as the Cinci flight began to board it became crystal clear very early in the process that the flight had been massively oversold. Before even half of the passengers had gotten on the plane the offers to buy customer seats began. The airline began the bidding at $500, skipping the customary free round trip tickets and other low ball crap they usually try and sometimes succeed with. No takers at $500, none at $750, none at $1000, finally at $1200 they a few “volunteers” approached the podium, sold their seats, and the remaining passengers were able to board without incident.
Watching all of this nervously were the Delta staff at my gate. If the Cinci flight had an overbook issue the Lou flight was going to be ridiculous. I set a price floor in my head where I might consider an offer (~$2000) and sat back in anticipation of the proceedings. With about 15 minutes remaining before the boarding process was to begin there was an announcement over the intercom. My flight to Louisville had been cancelled. No explanation was given. Less than five minutes later there was a follow up announcement stating that an alternative plane had been located. The Delta employee making this announcement made sure to comment on our wonderful luck in locating a new plane before letting us know that all passengers would need to proceed to a different gate to rebook seats for this new flight. She failed to mention that this gate was approximately 0.5 miles away, nor did she mention that the actual gate at which our new plane would depart from was approximately 1.0 mile from there. I would later learn that this was actually not necessary as I had been automatically rebooked on the miracle plane as soon as it became available. I believe most if not all of the passengers that had confirmed seats on the flight that was cancelled were automatically rebooked even though we were instructed that “all” passengers on the cancelled flight would need to rebook at the aformentioned 0.5mile away gate.
At this point you might be asking yourself so what, I don’t get it, what’s the big deal? flight got cancelled, found new plane, everyone rebooked, everybody happy, end of story. Delta is counting on most people to think that way. However, here is the way I see it and the evidence seems overwhelming once all the disparate facts are pieced together. The sequence of events:
- Delta knows both flights to Cinci and Louisville are massively overbooked. This was done intentionally because of derby weekend. Not only is travel volume high but cancellations are high as well because derby passengers are not typically the most reliable.
- The weather is deteriorating all day on the eastern seaboard. Delta is being impacted but so far minimal disruption to flights leaving Minnesota.
- A combination of poor weather and bad luck results in the Cincinnati flight being oversold and in an overbooked and checked in situation. Ticket buybacks authorized by management. The situation is clearly bad since offers start at $500 skipping the typical low level bullshit. Management pleasantly surprised when they can get the plane loaded and pushed back with only a $2000/ticket payoff. It looked to me like they only had to buy back 3–5 tickets but I could not see everything from my vantage point.
- Delta staff at Louisville gate noting the chaos going to Cincinatti inform management that they also have a significant overbooked and checked in problem. More than likely going to need to buy back ten or more tickets. Ask for price authorization up to $5000.
- Delta management panics when they hear about the Louisville flight. They ask the entire team for suggestions or ideas. Johnny Delta, who was just promoted to management last month, realizes this is his time to make an impression. He had been working on something in his spare time for the past couple of months so he raises his hand and says. “What if we just cancel the flight? We know exactly what happens when cancellations are announced. Immediately some number of passengers will call it quits and leave the airport as soon as possible to try and make other arrangements, the remaining will mill about in shock and horror for at least 15 minutes. Finally for any passengers not yet at the gate or even in the airport we know at least 90% of them will turn around and go home. According to my calculations we can expect at least 15 passengers to never make another flight today. We can ‘help’ the remaining passengers by providing a rescue flight. We just say we found an alternate plane and that we are going to use it to take them to Louisville. We can use the one we always keep on standby over in A terminal. They will actually be thanking us and feeling blessed by their good fortune.”
It takes quite a while for all that to sink in and at first everyone in the room reacts with horror, shock, and surprise. “We can’t just cancel a flight for no good reason.” “that’s morally reprehensible”, “think of the inconvenience not to mention the FAA fines” Johhny D. was ready for that last one and whips out his spreadsheet where he has calculated the exact PnL for a huge number of buyback v cancellation scenarios. The damn thing has pivot tables, drop downs, some clever math, and nice charts too. They plug in the info they have for the LOU flight and it is crystal clear that cancellation will save them at least $5,000 vs. even the best case buy back scenarios. All that’s left is to come up with a reason for the cancellation. Eventually the team decides that no reason will be publicly mentioned but if pressed they will all say it was a maintenance issue.
6. Flight alternative is publicly announced. As expected the remaining customers in the gate area are ecstatic. Announcement says that “all” passengers previously booked on the cancelled flight need to proceed to far ass gate that is not the gate we will be leaving from to rebook seat.
7. “Miracle” rescue plane ends up arriving in Louisville approximately 3 hours late but with six empty seats and all happy passengers but one. Yours truly.