The Decline of Delta: From Passengers to Pawns

Once top of the industry, now withholding food and water as passengers across the country find their health and safety at risk: Delta’s problems are deeper than you think.

Cheryl Platz
25 min readJul 26, 2023

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On July 14, 2023, Delta Air Lines broke the law at least twice when handling DL 652, originally scheduled to depart from Orlando at 4:20 PM, destined for LAX. We as passengers were subjected to four tarmac holds, two of which violated this Department of Transportation rule:

14 CFR chapter II, subchapter A — Part 259, ENHANCED PROTECTIONS FOR AIRLINE PASSENGERS
§ 259.4.C.4 Contingency Plan for Lengthy Tarmac Delays: For all flights if the aircraft remains on the tarmac, each covered carrier must provide adequate food and potable water no later than two hours after the main aircraft door is closed (in the case of a departure) or touches down (in the case of an arrival), unless the pilot-in-command determines that safety or security considerations preclude such service;

Violations of these regulations carry a fine of up to $27,500 per passenger, per occurrence. This happened TWICE in one night, in two different cities. I even warned the crew before the 2 hour mark the second time around, but they declined to provide food and water to the entire plane, insisting they only had to provide it case by case and forcing many passengers off the plane into an airport with almost nothing available at 10:30 PM. If found liable, fines for these violations could be near $12 million for our flight alone.

But that’s not the only thing that happened on my flight — it’s just the most clearly expensive failure. It also isn’t the only example of Delta’s failure that weekend to treat passengers like human beings.

In this (rather epic) tale, it’s time to hold Delta to account about recent events. We will:

  • Examine the Cries of the Stranded Travelers with several other recent examples
  • Dive into my Endless Itinerary: three major tarmac delays, two major DOT violations, blatant discrimination, lack of adequate food and lodging, and a ghost flight untraceable by most of Delta’s computer systems. Really. Plus the aftermath: the total impact and the laughably inadequate corporate response.
  • Explore the Patterns in the Pain: how these aren’t one-off incidents, but evidence of deep seated underlying issues
  • Reflect on The Deepest Irony: that I came to Delta because they were good at crisis
  • Close by reflecting on Holding Airlines Accountable

Cries of the Stranded Travelers

We’ll come back to the rest of my flight nightmare — disability discrimination, lodging nightmares, and a ghost flight- but first, some other major tarmac delay stories from the field in a SINGLE weekend:

Orlando, July 15 : Delayed by the Rainbow Hose

A friend of mine on a flight from Orlando to a different airport that same day reported a lengthy tarmac delay approaching 2 hours on the departure, but when they landed the passengers were till forced to sit through a ceremony for a pilot’s last flight — with sirens and “rainbow hose” sprayed on the plane — before allowing those long-delayed passengers off. As a result, these passengers were told they were 2 minutes late for their connecting flight, and were forced to beg for assistance finding replacement flights. No attempt was made to hold the other flight for the passengers trapped, due to a flight delayed after a 2 hour tarmac hold, waiting for a pilot salute.

Las Vegas, July 17 : Heatstroke in Hell

In Las Vegas, a plane was delayed on the tarmac for 3 hours until passengers began passing out from heatstroke, requiring oxygen tanks and paramedic evacuation. Unluckily for Delta, one of the passengers was Fox News producer Krista Garvin, which meant that Delta’s recent strategy of “ignore passengers and throw miles at those who complain” wasn’t effective. The dismissive language Delta uses in their official response to news articles like this CBS piece is disheartening: you’re going to call a 3 hour delay that required oxygen tanks and EMTs “uncomfortable temperatures?” We are human beings, not snakes adapted to desert conditions.

Krista Garvin, Fox News producer, live Tweeted from her own Delta nightmare on July 17. At least one person was removed from the flight by paramedics when Delta’s 3-hour (likely illegal) tarmac delay of the flight with no air conditioning in 111 degree heat turned into a huge health hazard for passengers and crew alike.

I am certain there are other stories out there — these are just the two that crossed my immediate path. And as one commenter on my thread pointed out — while I am an ambulatory disabled traveler, Delta already has a dismal record supporting disabled travelers who need to travel with mobility aids, as depicted in this piece about serious damage done to Heather Bennett’s personal mobility device on Delta.

“I watched the baggage handlers pick up my wheelchair by the backrest release bar, and that bar is a moveable part, and it’s not meant to support the weight of the chair,” the Washington-area attorney said. “I’m in my seat, and all I want to do is run out and tell them to stop what they’re doing, but I can’t do that.”

July 14 -15, DL 652: The Endless Itinerary

As mentioned before, my husband and I were booked on DL 652 MCO > LAX, nonstop, on July 14, 2023. We paid full fare for first class tickets because I live with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that makes me more susceptible to nerve compression and other chronic pain issues on long flights. We knew I’d be coming back from an attempt to relax, and did not want to undo that progress. Delta had other plans.

We were forced to return to the gate after the first tarmac delay and then our flight was rebooked as a flight to ATL with new departure information, so our original flight times are not visible in any FlightAware tracking systems. This email shows our original flight itinerary as scheduled when Delta instructed us to check in: 4:20 PM PT MCO to 6:32 PM PT LAX on July 14.

As “luck” would have it, I was also visibly disabled at the time. With the joint weakness that comes with my normally invisible disorder, I had sprained my ankle at work in June, and had only just completed physical therapy for the injury. To prevent re-injury in the high-strain situations of high crowds and pulling luggage on uneven terrain with my weakened joint, I was traveling with an ankle brace and a cane, both visible.

What ended up happening was a 24-hour travel saga, with a gate return, a flight diversion to Atlanta, an overnight delay, and eventually a much delayed last leg to LAX. The only part of this that was weather-related was the initial 1 hour pilot delay, and they still arrived before the flight time. Everything else was a staffing, service, or technology issue that added time and complexity to our trip.

The FlightAware flight logs for DL652 the days on and after our flight ordeal. Two of these flights are very much not like the others (the Friday flight from Orlando at 7:29 PM to Atlanta instead of a 4:20 target departure to LAX, and the 11:40 AM oddball departure from ATL to LAX on Saturday the 15th.

Much of what follows is documented by my own epic Twitter thread, should you choose to peruse it. It provides some extra context we won’t get into here.

Here’s an outline of the journey we’ll cover:

  • Tarmac Delay #1: DOT Violation following Crew Timeout
  • Discrimination against a Disabled Passenger
  • Tarmac Delay #2: Repeat DOT Violation despite my request for planewide food and water
  • The Night-Mare: Inadequate lodging and food
  • Ghost Flight: Can’t fly if you don’t exist

We’ll also talk about the damage done, and the insufficient response from Delta that I’ve already received since they declined to do an investigation.

Tarmac Delay #1: DOT Violation following Crew Timeout

Delta forced the flight to depart with a crew they knew were MINUTES from timing out due to a diversion in their flight from JFK. Despite leaving on time, by the first air traffic delay on the tarmac we were dead in the water. We were pulled to the side (to a safe area where they COULD have provided food and water, but did not) during several escalating failed attempts to come up with an alternate plan, including telling us we’d be flying to Atlanta but learning we could not because we were overweight; telling us we’d have to deplane; telling us we’d fly to a different city; and eventually telling us they were going to defuel despite claiming it was impossible.

A bit over an hour into the first delay, at 5:36 PM ET, I began what would be a many hour odyssey with Delta customer service, starting a chat over SMS with a disclosure of my disability and a request for information and assistance. (The first message refers to my flight TO Orlando, which…also experienced a 2 hour tarmac hold, but that one was weather related.)

All this time, the pilots and crew complained they did not know what was going on and could not give us clear updates. We closed the aircraft door on or before 4:20 PM. We were not given the opportunity to deplane until approximately 6:30 PM, over 2 hours later. No food or water was provided during that interim, in violation of DOT regulations.

Discrimination against a Disabled Passenger

Upon returning to the gate, they told us we could deplane at our own risk (a common theme in many of these stories, like the Vegas story: when the airlines do allow deplaning, they do it with veiled threats, even when denying passengers food and water at the same time.) I didn’t want to deplane, but I was desperately hungry and thirsty after hours boarding and waiting. I approached Catherine, one of the first class flight attendants, to try and explain my disability and ask for food and water. She was eating a salad she’d brought at the time, talking to a gate agent with curly hair and glasses, and denied me any help. She told me I would have to deplane WITH all of my bags AND my cane to go get food vouchers in the airport. I did so, with no other choice, but by the time we got the vouchers from guest assistance and waited in a 30-person line, my voucher was rejected at the cashier at the same time that we were called back to board.

I limped back to the gate, exhausted and worse off than ever, with my bags and cane. I told the redcoat taking tickets that I really needed help getting food and water. He pawned me off on a gate agent who was not in uniform, with a black suit and grey skirt, brown curly hair and glasses. She angrily walked me down the jetway, and told me “I’m only giving you water because you only asked for water” — a complete lie, especially because she witnessed me asking Christine about the food earlier on the plane. I reiterated that I needed food AND water. I sat down, and the gate agent escalated, threatening to deplane me. “Are you sure you can take this flight? I don’t think you can handle it. I should call the EMTs.” I again tried to explain that asking for food and water was not in itself a medical emergency, but she went to the flight attendants and said “Her hands are shaking. I think we should call the EMTs.”

At no point did anyone ask me why my hands were shaking. I have essential tremor. When I am stressed — or denied basic human sustenance- my hands will shake. It is a normal reaction to abuse. It does not mean I’m going to immediately have a heart attack or something, and it is hugely discriminatory to decide that instead of HELPING the person in FIRST CLASS who is asking for FOOD AND WATER, you’re going to weaponize their need for those things — their LEGAL RIGHT for those things after a nearly 3 hour tarmac delay at that point — to try and kick them off the plane.

Eventually a new flight attendant brought sanity and handed me two bags of chips in addition to the tiny water bottle, which is all I was asking for. But the damage had been done. For the rest of the trip, it was clear I had to mask any sign of my disability for fear of being kicked off the flight, and I had to divert precious energy to that effort. I did not feel safe sleeping at any time afterwards. Blatantly, massively illegal behavior, with no apology — likely can be confirmed completely by cockpit safety video, as I was in row 2 and all of my conversations would have been recorded.

To make matters worse, during Tarmac Delay #2 I tried to proactively ask for food and water for the flight, and Paul the other flight attendant told me “You missed a lot of service while you were off the plane.” So Christine told me she could not provide food and water, made a visibly disabled woman go on a fruitless goose chase around the airport for useless food voichers, and in the meantime they proceeded to PROVIDE FOOD AND WATER TO THE REST OF THE PLANE. I can’t think of any more blatant way to discriminate in this situation.

The start of my own seemingly endless Twitter thread to document the Endless Itinerary. Much of this helped me reconstruct the formal timeline for the DOT complaints, and I do recommend this as a strategy if you’re in this situation even if your airline isn’t engaging on social media.

Tarmac Delay #2: Repeat DOT Violation despite my request for planewide food and water

We were flown to Atlanta, where we were promised a complete new crew was waiting for us. (NARRATOR: They were not.) Again, we sat for over 2 hours. Gate arrival was 9:16 PM. We were kicked off the plane at 11:23 PM. We were not allowed to deplane despite being at the gate for over an hour, and when we were, we were again threatened with not being able to reboard. As passengers approached the front, they asked for assistance with food and water, and were being turned away.

I was growing incensed, as I’d had a flight (with extra in-flight delay) to research my DOT rights. Despite my fear, I got up and approached Paul, saying that our rights had been violated when food had not been provided during the first 2 hours of the first delay, and I would hate to see the whole plane go through that again. They refused to serve the whole plane, saying they could only do case by case — which I believe to be because the flight had run out of supplies due to the repeated excessive delays.

They should have deplaned us all immediately, especially when it was clear there was not actually a crew. But instead they kept us on a plane that did not have adequate food and water for us and made us sit through trash and food service while they made a desperate attempt to get the plane back out. It was like we were props, not people. At 11:23 PM, we all found out about the flight’s postponement till the next day not from the pilot but by automated emails.

The Night-Mare: Inadequate lodging and food

The sequence of events that occurred after being kicked off the plane just made things worse. We were repeatedly lied to:

  • “You can go pick up your bags at baggage claim” (we could not, and 100 of us were in fact yelled at by baggage claim staff for having the audacity to show up)
  • “Your flight will stay in the app” (it didn’t, and we had no way to get into the airport the next day)
  • “Your food vouchers will work in the airport” (they didn’t, the only open restaurant was Burger King and they required printed vouchers — we were only provided digital vouchers)

But the biggest issue of all was the insufficient lodging. Dozens of us were unable to check into the Canopy hotel for over 2 hours, slowed by Delta’s voucher system failing to clear voucher approvals in a timely fashion. And that was just at our hotel. Who knows what was happening at the other hotels? We did not even get into a room until after 3AM. Worst of all, upon boarding our plane the next day we learned that a mobility-impaired passenger who required a wheelchair from our flight never got sufficient lodging.

The line at the Canopy in downtown Atlanta — all displaced Delta passengers from various flights — just after 1AM on July 15, 2023. We have been traveling all day. We will not get a room until 3:10 AM. My husband is wearing the visor and tan shirt close to the frame in the back of the line.

I spent an hour on the phone trying to get someone at Delta to help with the situation, but none of their phone operators are apparently authorized to do anything about lodging. What happens if a voucher doesn’t clear? It is SHOCKING that there is not a passenger disruption department available 24/7, especially overnight. Lack of lodging is a health and safety issue.

Ghost Flight: Can’t fly if you don’t exist

Despite assurances to the contrary, DL 652 was removed from our apps, and any attempt to contact support resulted in front line employees insisting we (and many other passengers) had no reservations.

Again, I spent over an hour on the phone with multiple customer service reps, trying to convince them that we did, in fact, exist and that other passengers on our flight had been issued tickets for the day. All I could get was a supervisor who said an agent at the airport could print our tickets.

NARRATOR: They could not.

45 minutes in the Agent Assist line — since you can’t check into a kiosk with a ticket that doesn’t exist — only to have the agent try and do something to our next reservation (to London) because he wasn’t listening and didn’t understand that our flight was removed. We asked him to talk to his peers at other stations who were dealing successfully with displaced Orlando passengers, but he refused, and just got on the phone. We were then within an hour of departure with no sign of any way to pass through security.

Just then, we heard an agent yelling “ORLANDO PASSENGERS” in the distance about half a block away. I asked my husband to sprint over to see what was happening, as I was… still disabled, and would have to stay with the bags. He came back breathlessly to say that a group was being escorted through security without tickets. No one had bothered to check the entire agent line. We were being left behind. We had to snatch our IDs back from the agent. Against my better judgement, I then had to grab my cane and sprint to join this group to ensure we did not get left on the wrong side of security as it was very clear Delta was absolutely, 100% OK with leaving us behind in a city we didn’t want to be in with no tickets or return flight or baggage.

But the problems didn’t end with the escort through security, which was harder for me since it wasn’t Precheck and I had to take off my shoes. No, you see, this flight REALLY didn’t exist. The system wasn’t checking anyone in as we boarded the flight, even if we did have tickets. And when they DID get everyone on board… we had a third tarmac delay of an hour because — and I can’t believe I have to type this — they could not upload the flight’s weights and balances. Because the flight did not exist. I warned no less than 6 customer service agents over the course of 12 hours that something was wrong with those reservations. They all blew me off.

And as a final goodnight kiss: when we landed in LA, they weren’t ready for us at the gate. It was about 10–15 minutes which under normal circumstances isn’t a major issue. But with over 4 hours in the air and a 24 hour ordeal, telling us the gate crew is missing is not a good look.

Checking into our ghost flight in Atlanta at gate T6 on July 15. The monitors say “Boarding Ended”, which is not an auspicious sign of things to come. The board says “Scheduled 6:54 PM” which is a lie — they changed the scheduled departure time when they rebooked the flight to go to ATL instead of LAX. The “Actual” departure time of 11 AM also didn’t pan out, owing to the fact that the flight didn’t actually exist so they couldn’t update weights and balances numbers for a long while on the tarmac.

The total damage

  • The stress caused by this incident: the exceedingly long times confined to a chair, the discrimination, the denial of food and water, the lodging issues, the running through the airport to catch up with security escorts, etc. — undid all of the progress I’d made on a vacation I’d been planning for 3 years. With my disability and my demanding workload, it was the first time in ages I’d felt like a normal human, and Delta not only destroyed that but they triggered a disability flare with migraines, pain, and exhaustion upon returning home.
  • We are out of pocket for a Lyft ride, food, and a new suitcase due to the damage rendered to my own.
  • My husband had to cancel an audition which he cannot reschedule, which means he cannot work with that theater this season; an irreparable loss.
  • I was forced to reschedule a vehicle pickup I’d had scheduled for 4. months until after banks closed, which caused undue complications.
  • My trust in Delta was completely shattered, since I spoke with literally dozens of agents and NO ONE satisfactorily dealt with the issues we were facing.

I’ve documented the issues we experienced in a 400-line Excel timeline I will be submitting to the Department of Transportation, because starting about an hour into the delay I began an almost constant stream of support conversations and live Tweeting.

The good thing about text support is that it comes with timestamps. An excerpt from my Excel event timeline for submission in my Department of Transportation complaint, from immediately after the discrimination incident when a smoke alarm is going off in the cabin. Can you tell I have a background in production?

The Response, or Lack Thereof

You may say, “But you have to wait 60 days for an airline response before submitting a DOT complaint.” Actually… they replied last week, but it wasn’t much of a response. The official response to my corporate level complaint completely failed to address the specific DOT violations AND the specific discriminatory behavior I experienced, and simply mentions “passing on feedback”.

Tiffany Fulton from Delta Airlines completely blows off the multiple major legal and safety concerns I raised in corporate complaint 08222675 on July 16.

You’ll also note the line “Regrettably, we cannot refund a fully flown ticket”. This indicates that they DID read the entirety of my complaints and demands, and just chose not to respond specifically… except to deny amelioration others had already promised. Instead, they issue us 20,000 useless miles to travel on the same doomed airline instead of the full refund we asked for after getting a 24 hour, painful, disability-flare inducing ordeal instead of the first class nonstop flight we paid for.

I replied with 2 mails — one once again reiterating all of the points I’d made in my many written contacts with customer service, etc. The second email was a request for records pertaining to my flight:

“Attempts to destroy this information after this mail will be seen as attempts to evade my right to pursue a Department of Transportation discrimination complaint and may further complicate this case as it would imply knowledge of wrongdoing.”

The Patterns in the Pain

Being a disabled UX designer is like being able to see the code in the Matrix, because the training that helps me see how systems fail our customers applies to all of life’s experiences. With 24 hours of misery to wallow in Delta’s abject failures, let’s explore how Delta’s systems are disintegrating from the inside out:

  • Poor Training
  • Silos of Doom
  • Brittle Digital Systems
  • Learned Helplessness
  • Lack of Customer Respect

Poor Training

There is no excuse for Delta’s double DOT violation on this “flight”. The numbers are clear, backed up by FlightAware, app notifications, and my own text support chats and live Tweets. (Yes, I took a LOT of notes.)

ALL flight attendants should be explicitly aware of the under-2-hour rule for food and water, and should look for the first reasonable opportunity to provide those resources when a delay exceeds 30 minutes. If passengers don’t need the food then, they are still then prepared for a longer delay. Flight attendants should NEVER deny direct requests for food and water from passengers when in a safe parked position during a tarmac delay. It is illegal. If the flight is no longer stocked, passengers should be deplaned until the plane is restocked. It is not safe to continue to travel in a depleted aircraft.

The fact that this flight crew didn’t even respond when directly called out is deeply troubling, and a huge liability for Delta. Clearly they didn’t educate their flight attendants about the huge stakes — $27,500 per passenger per violation is a significant risk to take on because you don’t want to hand out chips and water. Particularly for folks like diabetics or other disabled folks like me, that simple aid is critical.

Silos of Doom

Delta’s support system has clearly disintegrated to the point of uselessness. Each support channel merely exists to throw miles at a problem, or in rare cases try to rebook you (but they will try like heck to get you to go to the app for that.) There is NO system in place for escalating live service problems transparently to the appropriate teams, or communicating back to affected parties what is being done.

  • No one looked into the disappearing tickets systemically.
  • No one briefed the check in agents in Atlanta that over 200 passengers were coming in to check in for a ghost flight that didn’t exist.
  • We were given such poor and inaccurate information by gate agents in Atlanta that 100 of us literally got BERATED by the baggage claim staff and told to “complain to Delta” if we were angry that they refused to provide us the promised access to our checked bags, leaving us with only the clothes on our back at midnight with no way of getting alternate supplies.

All airlines need to have a department empowered to break down silos and to escalate urgent information and potential systemic issues across organizational boundaries. For an organization that deals in safety and interstate commerce, I can’t imagine how they got to a place where such a thing isn’t openly visible to customers in crisis.

Why was it impossible for Delta to give us honest answers about our checked bags (pictured: 3 carryon bags and 2 checked bags, one red and one R2D2, next to my cane) for an entire day? They went from “you can retrieve them” to “they can’t be unloaded” to “they’re on another plane” to “they’re not on another plane” to “they’re in lost luggage in LAX.” And, of course, the red bag’s front zipper is gone. But no one wants to deal with these issues systemically, so each agent just tells you whatever is most convenient.

Brittle Digital Systems

Delta’s digital systems were also buckling under the weight of this incident. There was obviously a HUGE failure around how DL652 was re-routed to ATL. We were getting boarding notifications for the next Orlando flight… from ATL. We were getting boarding notifications for our flight in ATL… with the Orlando gate numbers. As someone who builds these systems for a living, it takes a LOT for a digital system to get that deeply in disarray. This speaks very poorly of the general stability of Delta’s flight and crew tracking infrastructure. Southwest took a lot of justified criticism in December, but I promise you — based on what I saw this weekend, Delta is a few heartbeats away from their own perfect storm of a meltdown.

In a single screenshot from our app notifications, 20 hours into the travel ordeal, you can see our bags being separated from us, the start of a third tarmac delay, and a boarding notification for a completely different flight in a different city. There was an entire feed of this unstable nonsense, contradicting itself and the agents we were working with. The app’s misbehavior is not because of the app. It reflects a much deeper malaise: poorly configured back end systems that can no longer handle the scale of Delta’s travel disruptions.

A screenshot from my Fly Delta app while in the air of my last leg of travel on July 15, at 2:07 PM Eastern time. The top notification is a boarding notification for a DIFFERENT DL 652, which is boarding in Orlando in several hours. The second notification was the start of another hourlong tarmac delay caused by the pilots’ inability to upload our balance data because our flight didn’t exist in the system. The final notification is evidence that our bags were forcibly separated from us onto a flight we did not travel on without our consent. This is one of many screenshots.

Learned Helplessness

A common issue at large companies, especially when out of the box thinking is punished or not rewarded. This manifests as “I can’t do anything”, “There’s no way to do that”, or “I didn’t cause this problem, so I can’t fix it.” There was a LOT of the latter in our trip:

  • Employees so frustrated at scheduling systems that they refused to serve food and drink to passengers
  • Supervisors choosing not to escalate clear systemic issues, simply passing off the burden of navigating the system back to the passengers who have been traveling for 12 hours or more.
  • Customer service agents writing off entire classes of service, like hotel vouchers, as completely off limits for help, even when dozens of people are stranded in the middle of the night.
  • Pilots getting on the intercom after a 24 hour ordeal and telling people “I don’t condone how you were treated, if Delta sends you a survey make sure to answer honestly!” Sir, they never sent us a survey. Of course Delta doesn’t want our honest answers ruining their record. YOU are the best people to affect change in that organization.

Lack of Customer Respect

This July, Delta isn’t treating passengers like people — they’re treating passengers like pawns. Left to rot in 111 degree heat, or abandoned time and time again on tarmacs in multiple cities without basic food and water or the freedom to deplane. I spent over 10 hours proactively communicating with their customer support teams via SMS, Twitter DM, Twitter, live agents, and phone starting just an hour into the first delay, so there is no way to argue that they weren’t aware at a broad level.

Delta keeps making this choice: it’s better to keep passengers on the plane in uncomfortable, unsafe, or illegal conditions because they don’t want to lose any more money with the time it will take to reboard or reaccommodate. No consideration is given to the harm caused during those delays. It’s down to dollars and cents on the minute, no matter who you are.

I witnessed Catherine on my flight shaming multiple people for their completely reasonable reactions to the conditions. One woman was near tears when asking about the delay, and Catherine’s response was “There’s no crying in flying!” Completely off kilter for what we were experiencing.

On day 2, JUST before the boarding door closed, a woman burst onto the plane soaking with sweat. She was one of the women denied water the previous night during Tarmac Delay #2. She explained that she had been left behind at the front and had to wait in 4 separate security lines before she found one where she wasn’t turned away. Catherine’s response? Not “I’m sorry you experienced that.” Not “Here’s some water and a snack to help you get your bearings.” No, her response was, “Well, you’re here now”, in a dismissive tone. Absolutely no consideration for the absolute hell the 200 passengers on our flight had to go through to get through TSA without valid tickets despite dozens of promises to the contrary.

This was a pattern: Delta’s staff so concerned with their own well being that there was no concern for customers. This seems to indicate that conditions are so bad for employees that they are in survival mode. It doesn’t make the behavior right. This kind of dismissal of passengers will only continue to erode the brand. Delta needs to get its house in order so that its employees have enough wherewithal to treat passengers with respect again.

And no, status isn’t a protection from this kind of treatment. On this flight, ALL of the following applied to us:

  • Full fare first class passengers
  • Gold Medallion members, already qualified through 2024
  • On the cusp of qualifying for Platinum Medallion for 2024
  • Delta Platinum Reserve American Express Cardholders (both)
  • I have 260,000+ lifetime miles with Delta, with many many years of Medallion status up to and including Platinum in years past.
  • And I was visibly disabled.

None of that status mattered. And should it? Should my status mean I’m more human than the next person? I’m not talking about getting nicer seats here. I’m talking about basic things, like providing food and water, psychological safety, physical safety, and adequate lodging. It shouldn’t matter who you are to get access to those things as a paying passenger on a US air carrier.

The Deepest Irony

I wasn’t always a Delta flier. I’ve had many airline statuses over the years: Continental, Alaska, etc. I was Alaska MVP Gold in 2017, due to my frequent travels for Amazon. While speaking at a conference in New York City, a “blizzard” rolled in. I called Alaska trying to book a flight out early, but was rejected even though there were seats out. I would be charged far more than I could afford to get into those empty seats, even though they’d need my seat for other displaced passengers later.

Meanwhile, in the same conference session, I witnessed all the Delta fliers around me get the same notification at the same time. Their flight waivers had been issued and they could book on any flight they wanted to get out immediately, and they could rebook using the app.

Alaska left us stranded in the city for days. I had to BEG to get moved from JFK to Newark after 3 days. They showed me that they couldn’t handle a crisis, even with status. But Delta’s flight waivers worked for everyone, in advance. I switched and within a month experienced my own disruption with Delta. It worked seamlessly and I avoided getting snowed into Pittsburgh.

Despite some issues, I’ve still recommended Delta to folks because I felt they were always going to be the best option in a crisis. But I can’t say that anymore. I can’t even say that my situation was a blip. All three examples in this article exhibit the same pattern: a total disregard for the humanity of passengers. Our need for basic things like water, food, moderate temperatures, and shelter. (To say nothing of making passengers miss a flight solely for a crew member celebration!)

Taking a walk with my husband to look at the EPIC AMOUNT OF SNOW that caused Alaska Airlines to abandon us in New York City in February 2017 after I presented at the Interaction 2017 conference. Delta made a LOT of money off of me thanks to this incident.

Holding Airlines Accountable

I’ve received no response to either of my two email follow ups to the July 16 letter, but they DID suddenly change their tune on the refund. I can now confirm we have received refunds for our airfare, but they Delta has shown no signs of wanting to engage on the extremities of the rest of the experience, so it is time to move forward. I would love to hear from news or government organizations that want to hold Delta to account for this flagrant pattern of passenger abuse.

In many of my posts about technology, design, and ethics, I talk about the importance of opti-pessimistic thinking: considering the worst consequences of success, and putting in place systems that allow us to respond appropriately. (I introduced the Opti-pessimism framework back in talks a few years ago and expanded on it in my book, Design Beyond Devices.)

Delta has not engaged in opti-pessimistic thinking. They do not have a plan for responding to the worst consequences of their success, and real people are suffering every day. Real paying customers. And they’re not getting the help they deserve. It’s time we hold ALL airlines to a higher standard. People are not pawns, or props to be staged in front of a capitalistic transportation ballet. Every passenger is a human being with physical needs, a destination, and a life to live. Crews experience the harm of disintegrating systems too, but they aren’t PAYING for the privilege of experiencing the abuse, and there are extra protections for them as employees.

What can you do about these issues, especially as a traveler?

  • Comment here to share your own stories of similar mistreatment, so that we can continue to look for and amplify patterns that should be addressed. We are greater than the sum of our parts.
  • Boost posts like this one, or the Tweet threads like Krista and I have created. These create signal the airlines can’t silence by forcing someone into DMs or pushing spin into a press release.
  • Contact your senators, congresspeople, and other government and Cabinet officials, advocating for airline accountability.
  • Protect yourself when you travel and hold airlines accountable. If you get stuck in a disruption, take screenshots of your ticket, ALL app updates, and any FlightAware updates. Use text or DM support whenever possible so you can go back to it for timestamps in the event your tarmac delays cross into illegal territory.

I know I don’t get anything if Delta gets fined. I still think it’s important they are held accountable. This was my experience in first class. Just how bad was the experience of the man with the wheelchair who started out in coach and didn’t get a hotel room? What about the parents in economy wrestling with kids and no food/water service? Yes, Delta refunded my ticket — but what did they do to make the rest of the folks who endured those illegal conditions whole? And what of the folks on the next flight they treat like this? Will that be you? The best way to force change is to make the absence of change too painful to ignore.

Treating passengers like humans is not an unsolvable problem. Airlines just want us to think it is. I spend my career solving complex, cross-disciplinary, cross-technology, large scale problems for companies. Almost anything is possible if you approach problems with curiosity and a willingness to adapt along the way. But someone, likely the government, is going to have to force those conditions. Will you help me continue that call for action?

Cheryl Platz is a world renowned user experience designer, best selling author, professional actress and public speaker, and an accomplished video game developer. Her book Design Beyond Devices: Creating Multimodal, Cross-Device Experiences is available from Rosenfeld Media or your favorite online bookseller.

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Cheryl Platz

Designer, actress, teacher, speaker, writer, gamer. Author of Design Beyond Devices. Founder of Ideaplatz, LLC. Director of UX, Player Platform @ Riot Games.