August 19, 2022

The Haggler: The Nightmare of the Airline Change Fee

The Haggler will spare you the litany, but apparently we need an explicit rule against midflight toenail clipping, because there appears to be some confusion about whether it is appropriate. (It is not, to be clear.) And a rule against loud humming of pre-disco Bee Gees hits — also not appropriate, though that is about the noise, not the Bee Gees.

The column also produced a lot of faintly mocking e-mail, which could be summarized and condensed as follows:

“Dear Dummy:

“You are very, very stupid. When the phone rep at Delta told you, the night before your flight, that all those window and aisle seats you spotted online were reserved for ‘disabled’ passengers, she was downright wrong. Most are reserved for frequent fliers. I ought to know. I am a Delta frequent flier. I took your seat.”

Is this a polite way to speak to the Haggler? No, but point taken. The seat reservation system is apparently a very elaborate game and if you are not enrolled in a frequent-flier program, you’re playing with both hands behind your back. Which, by the way, is a pretty good place for your hands when you’re in the middle seat, which is where you’ll often sit if you don’t enroll in a frequent flier program.

That or fly JetBlue, which does not play the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t game when it comes to seat selection.

In addition to the aforementioned jeering, the column also produced more than a few interesting complaints about Delta Air Lines. Like this one:

Q. On April 11, I bought two round-trip tickets to Shanghai, for me and my husband. The total price for both was $3,503. About a month later, I checked the fare for the same flight, which is scheduled for July, and discovered that the total price for the same tickets had dropped, to $2,902. So I wrote to Delta and asked if I could be refunded the difference.

Here is what a customer service rep wrote back:

“Anytime we reissue a ticket, an administrative service charge will apply. A nonrefundable Delta travel voucher will be issued for any difference beyond the associated administrative service charge. When your ticket involves international travel, the administrative service charge assessed will be the same amount of the change fee associated with the fare being downgraded.”

I think you would agree that this paragraph is hardly a model of clarity. But the point, it seems, is that Delta would charge me an administrative fee to take advantage of the lower fare, and that fee would be exactly the same sum as the difference between the old and new fares.

Preposterous, I thought. But then I went to the Delta international ticket counter at the Detroit airport for more information. Reps there confirmed the above. In other words, I asked, if the price of the ticket goes down by $1,000 the administrative charge assessed would be $1,000? That is correct, they said.

Does this sound as bogus to you as it does to me?Eva Deck

Trenton, Mich.

A. Every once in a while, the Haggler hears of a corporate policy that is so bold, so outrageous and so gratuitously unfair that the only proper response is some variation of “Hats off.”

This sure sounded like one of those policies.

But it is not, said a Delta spokeswoman, Susan C. Elliott. She said that Ms. Deck was given incorrect information by that employee at the Detroit airport. The customer service e-mail was an attempt to state the carrier’s actual policy, though a rather muddled attempt, Ms. Elliott acknowledged.

In actual fact, she said, Delta’s policy is to charge a $250 fee to change any international ticket and to provide a travel voucher for any leftover amount. Given that there is a roughly $600 difference between the lower fare and the fare Ms. Deck paid, she should have been sent two $50 vouchers. (The math: $600, minus two $250 change fees, leaves $100, which would then be split into two vouchers.)

Last week, a Delta customer service rep wrote to Ms. Deck to apologize and to explain the actual policy. The rep said that after Ms. Deck provides a few more details, she will receive two $50 vouchers sometime soon. In the Haggler’s restitution terms, this is what is known as “the bare minimum.”

But, frankly, Delta customers should be accustomed to the bare minimum. The annual American Customer Service Index, published on Wednesday, found that Delta is ranked second-to-last among United States airlines. The company’s score, based on responses from 1,750 flyers, sank 9 percent in the last year, and has sagged a disheartening 27 percent from 1995, when the survey first appeared.

Only Northwest scored lower. Yet that can’t be much comfort to Delta. The survey was conducted in 2010, the last year that Northwest flew under its own name. The airline has since been subsumed by the carrier that acquired it three years ago: Delta.


Finally, a note to the executives of the Automotive Marketing Group, a Las Vegas company that charges a fee to help used-car sellers find buyers. The Haggler has written several times, and waited 40 minutes on hold for someone to answer. Nothing. You don’t call. You don’t write.

This hurts the Haggler’s feelings. Get in touch, fellas. We need to talk about some complaints.

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