You have to see Delta’s optical illusion to believe it

illusivedelta
By | March 24th, 2016

Joann Hanson’s booking on Delta started out straightforwardly enough. She and her husband paid $446 per coach class seat in January for a trip to Tucson, Ariz., in February. A few days before the trip, Hanson received an email from Delta offering an upgrade.

The email presented the following offer: “Upgrade to Delta comfort — at your service on First Class $458 per passenger entire trip, total price including taxes and fees.”

Hanson thought it was a great deal for “old clients.” Hanson is an old-school traveler who seems to think the airline industry extends great deals to long-standing customers, perhaps as a gesture thanking customers for their loyalty.

Well, here come the smelling salts.

“We immediately took advantage of what we read to be an additional $12 per ticket to upgrade to first class,” she wrote to our advocacy team. “Needless to say, we were shocked when we arrived back home and saw two charges on our credit card from Delta — not for $12, but $458 each. Combined with the $446 we had already paid, our tickets cost $904 each.”

Hanson feels deceived by the offer. “According to the dictionary, the word ‘total’ is defined as “the whole number, an amount of something.” Yep, there it is. She brought Noah Webster into this.


Whenever a dispute between two parties devolves to the point where one party reaches for the dictionary, we know there has been a gross miscommunication between the parties.

And looking at the offer, I can see it both ways. Call me a cynic, but I have a firm belief that when something appears too good to be true, it probably is.

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I can see that the upgrade cost is $458 — what was intended by Delta. But Hanson and Webster have a point — total price does mean total price.

It seems we have a classic optical illusion, or trompe l’oeil. But how will Delta handle this?

The agreement between Delta and its passengers is a contract. Looking to contracts law, there is a general rule that any ambiguity in a contract should be interpreted in favor of the non-drafting party. In other words, where Delta drafted the offer and is in a superior bargaining position, this nebulous-looking offer should be interpreted in Hanson’s favor.

But outside of a court of law, is Hanson’s argument tenable? Do you believe in $12 upgrades to first class?

Delta’s customer service has told Hanson it cannot do anything to refund her money, because “the tickets have already been used.”

Has Hanson been deceived? She has asked us to help her secure a refund of the actual upgrade price charged (perhaps minus $12 would be appropriate). Our advocacy team might be Hanson’s only hope.

Should we advocate for Hanson?

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  • jmj

    no deception here. just poor reading comprehension skills.

  • MarkKelling

    The upgrade itself has a total cost of $458 per passenger in addition to the fare already paid, not the ticket has that total cost. I don’t see any other way to read this.

  • Steve Rabin

    I agree with Mark. If the upgrade costs $12 (ha ha–no way that would happen), it would have said that explicitly.

  • Jeff W.

    First off, great graphic.

    I can see how the Hanson’s could be confused. You can read it both ways. Unfortunately, an upgrade to first class for only $12 is quite unrealistic and really lessens their argument. $112 extra, and you have a stronger case. Not sure what an “old school” traveler would be, but the airlines don’t care about that anymore and if the upgrade was truly $12, for that amount Delta would more than likely throw that upgrade to an elite — who will spend current and future money to them.

    But you can try. The Hansen’s misread the offer, but Delta worded it ambiguously. If anything, your involvement may spur Delta to tighten the language.

  • John Baker

    You wrote the story to show her in the best light and I still can’t see how she would have read the way she did. It gave her the cost of the upgrade all in. Upgrades are in addition to what you’ve already spent. I’m not sure how you read the email and think that you’re only paying $12.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    While I normally side with the consumer, this should have seemed too good to be true and I would have checked with Delta on the phone if I really thought it was only $12.

  • Don Spilky

    $12 upgrade for first? Sign me up all day long!

  • Pegtoo

    Right. “Total” here means both flights, not the cost for each way. I did not read it differently when I upgraded with a similar offer a couple months ago. Sorry she misunderstood.

  • Regina Litman

    I voted Yes as a knee-jerk reaction, but if I had read your comment first, I might have voted No.

  • Mel65

    I get those offers virtually every single time I travel. And if these people are experienced travelers they know better !I know that the price of the upgrade is in addition to already paid and surely they know that too.

  • IgorWasTaken

    Take this to Small Claims Court.

    Think of Black Friday sales. Think of super-low-fare sales offered by Southwest.

    The fact that this is Delta and people who fly Delta know that DELTA would not offer an upgrade for $12/ticket is no excuse for Delta. In this scenario, Delta is merely “an airline” that made an offer.

    Also note the timing of Delta’s offer:

    A few days before the trip, Hanson received an email from Delta offering an upgrade.

    Maybe the whole plane was under-booked and 1st Class was near empty, so $12 (minus taxes) extra/ticket would mean more to Delta than $0 extra per ticket.

    I’m not saying Joann Hanson will necessarily win on this, but it’s worth a shot based on the facts presented here.

    And if I was the one going to court, I’d take actual super-low-fare ads from other airlines to help make my point.

  • flutiefan

    before i even read beyond the text of Delta’s email, i understood they meant it was $458 MORE. i was surprised (though i shouldn’t be) that she assumed it was a $12 upgrade.
    the total is just that — the entire cost of the upgrade.

    they misunderstood and that’s on them. don’t advocate.

  • MarkKelling

    Did they fly this flight already and were they in 1st class? If so, they will have no case.

  • Zod

    I think that Delta purposely made the offer vague in order to trap customers into more than doubling their ticket price without realizing they are doing so until it’s too late. If Delta wanted to be fair and above board, they would have used words like “additional” or “upgrade fee” or with technology the way it is today, they could have even pulled their original ticket price and itemized the total cost minus what they already paid. This is clear deception on the part of the airline in an attempt to snag someone who doesn’t understand that yes, EVERYONE is out to get them!

  • IgorWasTaken

    How does it matter if they’ve already flown?

  • MarkKelling

    If they have flown and they were in 1st class, a court will look at that as they accepted the terms and now have buyer’s remorse. They paid, they used what they paid for, and now want a refund simply because now they think the price is too much. .

  • Carl 0001

    Not too long ago they gave away upgrades to domestic first class for free to their best customers, (customers with elite status) so 12$ for a good customer just looks like another fee for something that used to be free

  • Kairho

    Delta has been making similar offers for years. With similar wording. That I’ve never heard of anyone getting confused by the offer of a $12 upgrade speaks to the vast majority of DL’s customers also never being confused. (but there’s always that one…)

  • Joe Blasi

    $12 may be right for full fair couch to super savers 1st.

  • IgorWasTaken

    I might agree – IF the “real” price was revealed to them before they flew. But if it wasn’t revealed, then doesn’t matter if they flew/had not yet flown.