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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Airline offers whiplash lesson in bad relations

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Published:   |   Updated: July 20, 2013 at 10:01 PM

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OK, I know I'm running late, especially in a modern airborne world monitored with unforgiving strictness by a pyramid with the TSA at its peak, Congress just below and dozens of hundreds of data-crunching passenger advocacy groups forming the base.

Still, everything seems comparatively routine as the door thumps closed behind me on Delta's overbooked Flight 2376, scheduled to make the run from Atlanta to Tampa. It's Monday and it's about a quarter after 5 p.m. Five minutes to push-back. The plane, a Boeing 757, is full. More than full, in fact, as we shall discover.

After all, airports and airlines have rush hours, too, which was made abundantly clear in my dash from the nether end of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's Concourse D to its counterpart of Concourse B. The walkways were clogged. The underground "plane train" was jammed.

The reason I was spurred to uncommon urgency was twofold: An already tight connection had been abbreviated by the 15-minute hold air traffic control in Atlanta placed on my originating flight from Asheville, N.C.; and there was a delay retrieving my FAA-authorized carry-on, which had to be checked because the overhead bins in the 28-seat puddle-jumper out of Asheville were designed when the traveling public was ladies in white gloves carrying small handbags and makeup cases and businessmen gripping slender leather briefcases.

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But I had hustled and presented myself while a handful of standbys were awaiting the outcome of their status, only to discover my original destination - a dreaded center seat - had been reassigned.

Hadn't Delta's super-smart computer network logged my presence on the flight from Asheville? Wasn't my arrival at Gate B-2 anticipated? Maybe it assumed I'd ditched my itinerary in favor of the peculiar charms of the Samuel Adams Atlanta Brew House. (Briefly, no: Since all the Paschal's restaurants closed, dining in the Atlanta airport is dead to me.)

Reassignment required the intervention of the gate supervisor, who applied swift typing skills and her license-to-override ID card to the task, and it was quickly done. New seat: 34A. A window? A window. This could not have worked out better.

Moments later I was settled in, and here came a member of the Tampa-based flight crew down the aisle, her gaze fixed on me like a drone's laser targeting a missile strike. Had I left something at the gate? Was I eligible for an unclaimed upgrade?

Guess again, lowly coach monkey.

Braking at Row 34, clamping hands on the seats along the aisle, she leaned over the couple returning from a week in New Orleans and, with a prosecutor's accusing glare, declared in a voice that dominated the rear third of the cabin, "If you get up during this flight, you may want to go back and thank the pilot in the jump seat who gave up this seat for you. You were the last passenger on this plane, and they wanted to take you off, but he said he'd take the jump seat. So you may want to say 'Thank you.'?"

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Wait. What?

Had that just happened? Had the flight attendant, pinning me down with her brace-for-impact posture, just publicly chided/scolded/embarrassed a 30-year loyal client who's logged more than 650,000 lifetime miles on her airline?

All for the sake of a free-riding employee who, following long-standing protocol, relocated to a less comfy seat for a 90-minute hop so the paying customer can occupy the seat he paid for?

And is dressing down a passenger what Delta CEO Richard Anderson meant when he said, in the July 2013 issue of Sky magazine that was conveniently in the seat back pocket at my knees, "At Delta, we've found that common values are far better than any detailed manual could ever be. ... Delta people, from the CEOs [sic] office to the front line, rely on our culture and our core values to guide our business decisions every day"?

Monday afternoon, one brand-loyal passenger received the whip-lashing of a lifetime from one employee's interpretation of Delta's core values. Or is that how the biggest companies work these days? Delta's press office did not respond to a request for comment.

Sigh. I guess I'm old-fashioned. I liked it better when Delta loved to fly, and it showed.

tjackson@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1851

www.Facebook.com/TomJackson Tribune

Twitter: @tjacksonTBO

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