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Another Tale of Flight Christmas
Thursday, September 20, 2018 -- Nothing about airlines surprises me anymore--unless I am stunned, shocked, gobsmacked and otherwise utterly astonished.

So even when there is a tale of an airline doing the right thing--in the no-duty-of-good-faith-and-fair-dealing frequent flyer arena, no less--the backstory is epically bizarre, the carrier's belated remedy is inexplicable and the details are, at best, woefully incomplete.

For the backstory, I refer you to my column in June about the antics of Delta Sky Miles, Chase Bank and Amex over a pair of award tickets to Rome. In summary: transferred points don't arrive, travelers lose a chance to book business class seats on Delta's nonstop Flight 444 from New York/Kennedy to Rome at a real discount. I help them book an alternative--Kennedy-London/Heathrow-Rome--but Delta delivers coach seats instead. Delta argues wrongly about what was displayed online and then, after a 4-hour phone call, begrudgingly offers a suboptimal take-it-or-leave-it alternative connecting itinerary because the travelers rightly refused to pay more for the nonstop to remedy Delta's error.

Fast-forward to last week, when the travelers innocently wondered if they could start their journey in Naples since Delta's oddly timed JFK-Amsterdam-Rome "solution" was no less inconvenient than a JFK-Amsterdam-Naples journey.

Let me check, I say. There's a chance that I could talk Delta into swapping a KLM Amsterdam-Naples flight for the KLM Amsterdam-Rome segment, I say. After all, Delta had been pissy about the error they made and maybe I can leverage some sympathy to make the alteration, I say.

Now here comes the boom. I log in to their Delta account and Delta has unilaterally changed their flight. They are now booked on--tah, dah!--Delta Flight 444 nonstop from JFK to Rome.

That's the same flight the travelers wanted at the start of this drama, but couldn't book because of the points-transfer snafu. The very same flight a Delta agent tried to convince them to pay more for in order to solve Delta's booking error. The very same Delta nonstop that the airline's revenue manager department adamantly refused to put them on back in June.

What a win, you're thinking. Not so fast, I say. I see a ton of red flags: Delta never informed the travelers of the change. No eticket was issued. The receipt still shows JFK-Amsterdam-Rome, not Delta Flight 444. In fact, the flight isn't even booked as Delta 444. My friends' itinerary now shows them booked on KLM Flight 6083, the KLM code-share designation of Delta 444. Most peculiar of all, my friends' new flight is booked in J class, a full-price business class fare code, not O class, which Delta generally uses for frequent flyer award seats.

As a frequent flyer, I'm suspicious. As a reporter, I am beyond curious. After all, airlines aren't known for reaccommodating you on a nonstop now "selling" on Delta.com for 280,000 miles when you paid 82,000 miles and they previously refused to rebook you when seats were available at just 125,000 miles. They don't rebook you on nonstops at prime periods when you accepted a connection. And they sure as hell don't book you in a bust-out retail fare class when you're using miles.

So because I haven't spent enough hours on this one booking, I start researching. It turns out my friends' desire to travel on Christmas Day seems to have worked in their favor--if you can consider anything they've been through felicitous. Sometime after the earlier booking contretemps, Delta canceled the JFK-Amsterdam flight (Delta 46) on Christmas night it had forced the travelers to accept. And KLM had independently cancelled the next morning's Amsterdam-Rome connection, too.

The rest--no notification, unissued etickets, strange fare class, booking as a KLM code-share rather than Delta Flight 444--would require answers direct from Delta.

Naturally, Delta provided none. A phone agent apologized profusely for the lack of notification but had no other useful information. Essentially, she suggested, my friends should accept the switch, red flags and all, as a Christmas gift from Delta.

I tried KLM via Twitter and the staff was unbelievably rude. After first insisting they couldn't answer questions because the tickets were booked via a travel agent--uh, no--they then decided they couldn't help because Delta booked the tickets. After I tried a third time, pointing out that I'd provided them a KLM-issued confirmation code for tickets booked as a KLM flight, KLM's Twitter team, clearly annoyed, confirmed the flights existed but again said they were unwilling to intervene.

Not expecting much, I then tried Delta's Twitter team. A chipper, fast-responding cyberpresence who identified as *TMC provided some comfort, if not answers. For instance, *TMC E-mailed a new receipt with the nonstop itinerary. It mentioned an "even exchange" to explain the transition from an 82,000-mile JFK-AMS-FCO connection to a 280,000-mile JFK-FCO nonstop.

But the receipt also revealed something new: Delta had changed ticket numbers, another thing Delta hadn't bothered to tell my friends. Not a big thing in this day of electronic everything, but we've all been in a situation where what we thought was real wasn't. How'd you like to show up on Christmas night with a ticket number that an officious, overworked counter agent deems invalid because the computer said so?

Ticket numbers aside, however, *TMC was reassuring but otherwise clueless. He/she/its only answer to the KLM code-share booking rather than a booking as Delta Flight 444 was to say the obvious: "It's the same flight!" And *TMC had no thoughts whatever about the booking into J class.

What do we learn here? Nothing that we didn't know before: Even when airlines do the right thing--and, given the nature of this case, I use "right thing" broadly--they are ham-fisted, infuriating, tone deaf and generally interested only in themselves and their procedures.

Meanwhile, I'm thinking I may have to shepherd my friends to the airport on Christmas night with my thick file of collateral and the ticketing tick-tock to make sure they get to Rome. I have the feeling we haven't heard the last of this booking.

This column is Copyright 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2018 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.