If you follow my blog, you will know that I am a fan of budget airlines, like Spirit and WOW Air, as their rock bottom fares allow people to travel who might not have been able to previously. I think this is a wonderful thing. So you can imagine my surprise to find that on my recent solo flight to Florida I was on Delta, but what turned out to be their budget fare the Delta Basic Economy. At the time I had no idea what that meant, but now I do and it’s not pretty.
It’s been at least a year since I’ve flown on my own. As a family traveler I am almost always with my little one in tow. So you know that I was super stoked to be heading out on a 5+ hour flight all by my lonesome. I had grand plans for working, reading and just enjoying the silent buzz of the airplane engines.
Well that is until I went to check in. Being the good traveler that I am, I had downloaded the Delta App in advance, assuming that would make my online check in quicker and easier. I’m not sure if it helped or hurt, but it was the medium in which my negative experience began.
Checking in with Delta Basic Economy Fares
For once I was right on time to check in, even though I was at my son’s weekly ‘All School Meeting’. As soon as I tried to check in, the Delta App informed me that ‘one or more passengers on your itinerary are on standby so you cannot check in’
What‽ Standby? How could I be on standby‽
I bought this ticket with miles (through my Chase credit card), so I knew that it is bought and paid for. How could I not have a seat? My mind started to spin. Would I make it to my conference?! Was my entire trip going to be fraught with anxiety over getting bumped from my flights?
I immediately got on the phone even with the chaos surrounding me to Delta’s customer service. Weaving my way through the voice command system amongst the noise of my son’s school, I finally got through, not to an actual agent but to a recording telling me that there was a ‘more than 2 hour wait’ and I could have them call me back. Obviously that’s what I would do, so confirmed and moved on still feeling anxious about whether I would even have a seat!
I carry on with my day, keeping my phone right next to me at all times. There was no call until just when I picked my son up at 3 pm, but I missed the ringing and only caught it when it had already gone to voicemail. ACK!
I decided to call directly back to get the same message as I had in the morning, stating there was more than 2 hour wait for an agent. Really? Are they that busy on a day with no adverse weather or other flight disturbing events occurring?
After 7 hours of stress worrying about my flight I was relieved to finally get the callback I had been waiting for all day.
Unfortunately this call would only be a bandaid that didn’t stick.
I unraveled my story for the customer service agent who then quickly informed me that she had secured me a seat. A middle seat as that is all that was left. I had known that was coming because there were only a few aisle seats on the seat map when I tried to check in 7 hours previously.
After much back and forth I was told it was a mistake that I was put on the standby list and that unfortunately she couldn’t do anything on the phone but that I would be ‘assured’ a better seat if I got to the airport 90 minutes early and saw a gate agent. I didn’t trust her, but what could I do? At least I now knew I had an actual seat, so that was one stress gone.
Day of Flight
Arriving to the airport almost 2 hours early it was not surprising when I couldn’t find a Delta representative. I went ahead through security straight to the gate to sort out my seats.
Still no one wearing the red jacket I was told to look out for. Instead, I began a conversation with the gate agent who started to clue me into the secret realities of the basic economy fare that I had unknowingly purchased.
I remember when booking the flight, a pop up box appeared stating that I would not be eligible for complimentary upgrade seats or able to purchase upgrades for this flight. Sure fine with me. I don’t need to upgrade. Nowhere on that pop up did it tell me that purchasing this fare would mean I would be treated like a second class citizen.
The gate agent found herself in a sticky situation when I began repeating back some of the things she was saying to me like ‘With basic economy fares you are only guaranteed a seat if one is available‘. Huh? So does this mean if the flight is overbooked I’m the first to be bumped? It appears so. I’m not living in a closet, I’ve seen all these horrible stories about how airlines are bumping people these days. So you can imagine the panic that swept through me, sending my heart rate a flutter. I can’t be bumped! I am on a tight schedule with a kid waiting at home.
As I began to question the gate agent more, she decided to call for another Delta representative, one wearing the red jacket I had been on the hunt for!
I patiently explained the situation again to Sylvia, the Delta representative. She disagreed with the phone operator saying that no in fact it is not a mistake that I was put on standby. That is what this ticket gives me… standby for a seat assignment. What?
As I go back and forth with Sylvia it becomes clear that the little pop up warning box provided when purchasing this ticket is not quite accurate. According to Sylvia, the basic economy fare means a middle seat. That’s it. No other options. So the advertisement on the website about ‘don’t mind where you sit?’ Actually means ‘don’t mind sitting in a middle seat? Then book this fare’
She even went on to say that she can’t even give me an aisle or window seat even if she tried. Really‽ Doubtful.
The Problem: Lack of Transparency
The issue here is a lack of true transparency. Delta is telling customers to purchase these cheaper fares (which weren’t that cheap in the first place to be honest) saying that the only drawback is not getting to choose your seat until ‘after check in’. They have started to add in a bit more information about what it means to purchase this ticket, however they are still not being clear about what their internal policy is for this flight.
In reality, in Delta speak: you will only get a middle seat even if others are available, at the gate after every other client paying and non paying get a choice in seats. But to a customer not privy to this inside speak, you might believe that this only means you don’t get to choose your seat at time of purchase but can after the check in window opens aka 24 hours in advance.
The problem here is lack of transparency. Budget airlines are popular because they offer cheap flights AND they all are extremely transparent about their policies. You know when you purchase a seat on their flights what it does or doesn’t come with. Delta on the other hand is being deceptive about what booking a Basic Economy Fare means, which is the first step in creating fights with customers.
On my flight, 6 aisle/window seats remained open with tons of passengers squashed in their middle seats never even given an option to get an aisle or window – even at the gate! When they asked on the flight if they could move to an empty seat, they were told no. That the empty seats available were for premium paying passengers.
This hidden policy is why I will never choose a Delta Basic Economy Fare again. I might even think twice before booking Delta at all.
In the end Sylvia managed to book seats for my return flights to ease my mind about whether I would be bumped or not. Miraculously after insisting she couldn’t get me anything other than a middle seat even if she tried, she managed to get me an exit row window seat… for both my flight to Florida and my return. Shocking how that happens.
But you know what, I don’t want to have to complain and argue (nicely!) with a gate agent for 30 minutes after 24 hours of stress about what it means to be on standby. I want to pay for my flight and know exactly what I’m paying for. And this means I will stick with the airlines who are transparent and honest about what their fares include.
Thanks Sylvia for getting me window seats. Technically my Basic Economy Fare was still valid since I didn’t get to choose my seats. I actually prefer an aisle.
The Truth About the Delta Basic Economy Fare
- You do not get to choose your seat until you get to the gate and even then they will only give you a middle seat, even when others are available.
- You will be high on the list for bumping should your fight be overbooked.
- You get to board last insuring that very little cabin space is available for your carry on.
- You will receive the longest customer service call back time should you need to speak to an actual person.
Given these realities about the E-class Basic Economy Fare by Delta I highly discourage families from booking these fares. If any pop up box comes up while booking informing you of the inability to upgrade, take note and search for another fare. I can only imagine how this would have played out had I been traveling with my son on this fare. It would have been another added stress of trying to get someone to switch seats with one of us.
I appreciate the assistance that I received from Sylvia at the gate, although I have to say creating hidden policies like this only makes their job more difficult than it has to be. It creates a situation where passengers are unhappy before even boarding, increasing the likelihood of conflict during the flight. I think I’ll stick with the airlines who believe in transparency and honesty to ensure a positive relationship with their customers.
Have you ever booked a ‘cheap fare’ without realizing it? What did you do about it?
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