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What's the Point--and Miles--of It All?
Thursday, June 14, 2018 -- Halfway through a nearly endless phone call with Delta Air Lines, my wife wandered into my office and overheard me sparring with a customer-service agent about fare classes and booking codes and the inflexibilty of revenue management bureaucrats.
When I was put on hold for about the 20th time, she said: You're an expert at this stuff. How can the average flyer ever get a fair shake on a frequent flyer award?
That is no idle question. A frequent flyer herself, my wife has never paid much attention to the rigmarole. In fact, she's like a lot of you. You fly, you put your head on hotel bed and maybe take an affinity credit card, but you don't understand--or even care to understand--how the travel industry rigs the system.
And after a recent series of unfortunate and infuriating events, I'm wondering what the point--and the miles--is. The game is now hopelessly rigged. Even if you find a way to beat the house using their stacked deck, they will fabricate a new ruse, tell you that you misunderstood the rules and deny you anything like the award they dangled.
It's dirty and nasty and, as an infrequent-flyer friend said this week after he ran into a brick wall at American AAdvantage: "I just want to get rid of my miles and be done with it all."
My brutal tale begins three weeks ago, at the dawn of the Memorial Day weekend. Friends wanted to fly to Rome and celebrate the New Year. They also wanted to burn off a cache of points and miles. Between them, they had more than enough Delta SkyMiles and Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards points to claim business class freebies.
But they noticed a quirk: Delta asked 100,000 SkyMiles for Delta Flight 444, a nonstop from New York/JFK to Rome departing Christmas Day--but just 86,000 miles if they booked Delta 444 together with Alitalia Flight 1481 from Rome to Verona. Why, they wondered, would they be charged more for a JFK-Rome nonstop than a JFK-Rome-Verona itinerary using the same Delta flight?
Rather than explain, I complicated their lives by pointing out they could shift Chase or Amex points to the Air France/KLM Flying Blue program and claim seats on Delta 444 for only 62,500 points. Get those points transferred and let's grab you a Christmas Day miracle, I confidently exclaimed.
Unfortunately, they did what I told them. On Friday evening, May 25, each one sent 125,000 Chase and Amex points to Flying Blue. Chase and Amex both instantly confirmed the transfers.
But those points never arrived at Flying Blue. As the hours ticked by, I tested an Amex-to-Flying-Blue transfer to my own account and it went through instantly. I called Flying Blue and asked about my friends' points and was surprised to be asked to wait 24 hours.
When 24 hours passed, I called again. Chase, Amex, Flying Blue. Each had the same answer: You should give it 48 hours. Meanwhile, the 62,500-point Christmas miracle of a Delta nonstop from New York to Rome disappeared from Flying Blue. So did the 100,000-mile price at Delta.
When 48 hours passed, I began demanding answers. From Flying Blue came this: We're having computer problems. It could take 96 hours. From Amex came a metaphoric shrug of the shoulders. But from Chase came an interesting response: Forget "instant." Chase won't even inquire until after seven business days have passed.
At the 96-hour mark, I called Amex Membership Rewards and requested assistance. They were astonishingly unhelpful, suggesting the only recourse was to open a "dispute" that could take a month to resolve. I asked for a faster option: Could the agent--his name was Derek--call Flying Blue and see if he could shake some answers loose? Derek flatly refused. "We don't call," he said. "All we do is open an inquiry."
My friends were content to wait. I was not. I called Amex and asked to cancel my Platinum Card. That, of course, got me to an "account saver." Her name was Donna and I could tell from her accent that we were fellow Brooklyn refugees. I knew I'd be okay. I told Donna the tale--with an extra helping of indignation about Membership Rewards not even wanting to call to inquire about the Flying Blue situation.
That's when Donna got indignant. "They wouldn't make a call? Idiots. I won't lose a 43-year member over a phone call."
She promptly initiated a three-way with Flying Blue. Edward, the agent she reached, was apologetic--and motivated by the telephonic presence of an Amex saver. He offered to "check another system." Several minutes later, Edward returned with news. He could "see" that the points transferred from both Amex and Chase, yet had no explanation for why they were not appearing in the accounts. But he made an offer: Call back with the flights desired and he would hold seats until the points actually reached the account.
I passed this news to my friends, but they didn't want to remain in limbo. Let's go back to claiming seats using Delta miles, they said.
I found them a decent enough deal: Delta nonstop to London/Heathrow on Christmas Day and a connection to an Alitalia flight to Rome. The cost: 82,000 SkyMiles for business class. Not quite as good as the original 62,500-point Flying Blue charge for Delta Flight 444, but better than the 125,000 miles Delta was now charging for the JFK-Rome nonstop.
I booked their tickets (above). Minutes later, E-mail confirmations arrived--with coach connections from London to Rome.
But I had booked properly in business class. And I could prove it because I was taking screenshots. How the tickets booked in coach was beyond mysterious.
Thus began a 3-hour and 38-minute marathon call with Delta. At first, an agent insisted I had either misbooked the tickets or misread the booking codes. I sent her my screenshot by E-mail as we talked and she reluctantly agreed that, if nothing else, I had booked what I had seen: business to London and business to Rome.
She passed me to a supervisor. We started again. I had misbooked or misunderstood, she claimed. I E-mailed screenshots again. After receiving them, she insisted she was seeing no such thing on her computer. She was seeing only a business-to-coach connection and I'd misunderstood the booking codes. "And didn't you see the 'mixed cabin' notice?" she asked.
No, I explained, I did not miss the mixed-cabin notice. There was no such notice there. "That's what I am seeing now," she responded. I pointed out that my booking session was still live and was still showing a business-to-business connection with no mixed-cabin warning.
"Impossible," she said.
I sent her a contemporaneous screenshot. When she got that E-mail, there was another barrier.
"You only sent me the page with the flight," she said. "I need to see the booking codes. You need to go through the booking process."
So I went through a phony booking process (above) and it showed exactly what it showed before: O class (that's business) for the Delta nonstop to London and Z class (that's business) for Alitalia nonstop to Rome. I did a screen grab and sent it.
After some time, she came back on the line and conceded I had booked properly. The problem, she explained, was that there was nothing she could do. She couldn't access Alitalia's inventory and wasn't empowered to override anything. The best she could offer was to redeposit the miles.
I refused. I politely but firmly demanded a resolution. I floated the idea that Delta should suck it up and rebook my friends on Delta Flight 444, the nonstop that was the original goal so many days ago.
After an interminable hold, she came back and said revenue management wouldn't approve the switch to the nonstop. "Can you spend more miles?" she asked. "The nonstop is 125,000 miles."
I could, I said, but spending more miles wasn't a resolution. It was 43,000-mile-per-ticket penalty on the customer to rectify a Delta mistake.
To her credit, she went back to revenue management. As the hold extended, I discovered Delta had changed its flight display (left). Now the New York-London-Rome itinerary I'd booked was no longer showing an O-class-to-Z-class connection, but a Delta One flight connecting to "flight partner service" on Alitalia. I girded for a retroactive defeat and a new Delta fudge.
Surprisingly, that is not what happened. She returned with what she said was revenue management's only offer: A Delta business class flight to Amsterdam with a tight (but legal) 55-minute connection in Schiphol to a KLM business class flight to Rome. I took it. (Ironically, this JFK-AMS-FCO routing was not available for booking with SkyMiles on Delta.com, but was selling for cash. The price? About $1,000 more than Delta Flight 444, the nonstop that revenue management wouldn't make available at 82,000 miles.)
Yet we're still not done. On Wednesday, June 6, seven business days later, the Amex and Chase points posted to Flying Blue. The same day, my friends received a letter dated June 4 from Amex. It explained that Amex had opened an inquiry. "We try to resolve investigations in less than one month, but complex cases may take additional time." The same day also brought a call from American Express. A Membership Rewards representative asked if my friends wanted to reverse the Flying Blue transfers since she had noticed that they hadn't yet posted.
A note to readers: I alerted Gary Leff several weeks ago to the initial pricing discrepancies on Delta Flight 444. He used them as the basis of a useful blog post about Delta's deceitful pricing strategies. Meanwhile, I checked today's price for a business class seat on Delta Flight 444 on Christmas Day. It costs 200,000 SkyMiles.
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