Travel Troubleshooter: Not much recourse when your airline offends you
"At first I didn't think I read it right," says White, a student at the University of West Florida. "I was worried that another customer might think I somehow picked that code. If I were a gay male, I might have thought that a Delta worker purposely gave me that code, and that would have made me extremely uncomfortable."
Every day, in ways big and small, airlines offend their customers. Most of these transgressions are fairly minor, from serving the wrong meal to addressing a customer by the incorrect name. But taken together, the incidents raise a larger question: How should companies respond, and what kind of compensation, if any, are travelers entitled to?
Delta apologized for any "concern or misunderstanding" its code may have caused White. "These confirmation codes are computer-generated and are completely random," says Russell Cason, a Delta spokesman. "We will make every effort to ensure that a similar combination does not occur in the future."
I receive complaints almost hourly from passengers who say they've been treated rudely by flight attendants or dismissively by a call center employee, or whose special meal requests weren't honored and who want to be compensated for it. Those grievances are difficult to respond to because, from an airline's perspective, they're unimportant.
Indeed, in virtually all the recent publicized cases where customers have felt wronged, it wasn't because an airline failed to meet its contractual obligations or violated government regulations. So compensating disgruntled passengers with vouchers or ticket credits would be completely at the airline's discretion.
White, for his part, says that besides an apology, he'd like assurance that Delta's IT department will prevent someone else from receiving an offensive message at check in.
"I'm an IT major, and what surprises me is that they didn't block [his confirmation code] as a possibility of the string of random numbers and letters in the software they use to generate" the code, he says. "I'm sure they removed many four-letter words that would be seen as offensive. I'm surprised that 'gays' and 'H8' weren't blocked as well."
I'm not. The airline industry - and America's three remaining legacy airlines in particular - doesn't appear to spend a lot of time worrying about hurting our feelings. Perhaps passengers expect too much from the winged buses of the 21st century.
Maybe it's time to lower our standards a little.
email@example.com. Christopher Elliott is ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org.