Delta was “downright surly” after a death in the family

Leonard Zhukovsky / Shutterstock.com
By | July 27th, 2016

When someone mentions the “D” word to our advocates — as in “death” — their first response is invariably “we’re so sorry for your loss.”

But when Paula Parker told Delta Air Lines that her mother-in-law had unexpectedly passed away, its response was: “So what?”

And that’s why we’re writing about her case today. Not because she’s entitled to anything under the airline’s restrictive contract, but because we owe her something as human beings — and dammit, so does Delta.

Question is: What?

Before we can answer, let’s hear from Parker:

My husband had tickets on Delta, which he booked through Travelocity, to fly from Sacramento to Minneapolis. He planned to stay there a few days visiting with his daughter and grandson, then fly to Sioux Falls to visit extended family in the area, including his mother and multiple brothers and sisters.

A few days before his departure, he received a call that his mother had just unexpectedly passed away. I immediately called Delta. I thought it would be easy to change the tickets from Friday to Tuesday.

He and his daughter and grandson plan to drive to Sioux Falls for the funeral. He still plans to go back later for the visit with other family, so no other changes were needed.

I expected to pay a change fee. But when I called Delta, I was l told in no uncertain terms that Delta gave absolutely no discounts nor made accommodations for funerals. To change the day on the flight there would not only be a change fee of $200, but since the tickets “were a certain type of ticket” — read “discount” — the new flight would cost about $375 more for a total of $575. That’s just to change the travel day from Friday to Tuesday.

The original ticket was $460.

The Delta agent was downright surly explaining the “policies” to me. Shocked, I sort of sputtered “that’s outrageous!” and the agent hung up on me; up until that point I had not been anything but polite. Honestly.


A Delta rep hung up on her? Really?

Behavior like this is completely inconsistent with Delta’s guiding principles, which state that its reputation is its “most important asset” and that “Every day Delta strives to earn its reputation for operational excellence and customer service.”

Needless to say, what Parker experienced wasn’t customer service. More like disservice. (Gosh, I use that line a lot. I wonder why.)

Now, I’m sure there will be a few “rules-are-rules” commenters who will say, “Parker shouldn’t have booked one of those discount tickets.”

But the rest of us — which is to say, those with hearts — will look at her case with more compassion.

Should she be punished for selecting a low fare? No. Should Delta’s terms be so onerous? No. Should it hang up the phone when she needs to change her ticket? Hell, no.

And that, I would submit, is the right reaction. Hey, we’ve all had customers who run into hard times. I’ve had magazines fold before they could pay me for a freelance story. I’ve had advertisers who couldn’t pay their bills even after their campaigns ran. The right thing to do is to forgive.

Why? Because it’s the right thing. Also, because at some point, you may find yourself in a similar position — asking someone for a favor even when you’re not entitled to one — and do you really want them hanging up the phone?

Parker says she thinks it’s “too late” to help her. I’m not so sure. I think Delta can still apologize to her (it’s free). It can offer her a voucher for a future flight (practically free). And it can promise to retrain the agent who disconnected the call.

I am personally upset by the way Delta has handled this case. This is no way to treat a customer, even if you’re an airline.

Should I take Paula Parker's case?

View Results

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  • mbods2002

    I voted “yes” just to bring this horrible customer service to Delta’s attention, again….

  • DChamp56

    Lets see if Delta has a recording of said conversation… wanna bet it doesn’t?

  • BubbaJoe123

    If the rep hung up on her, Delta should apologize.

    As for the flight change, while the death is very sad, it’s not Delta’s fault, nor their responsibility.

    As for the below:
    “Why? Because it’s the right thing. Also, because at some point, you may find yourself in a similar position”
    So, Christopher, if Delta’s having a tough quarter, and they call you up and say “hey, I know you have a ticket from Chicago to LA next week for $400, but we’d really appreciate it if you could do us a favor and send us an additional $200,” are you going to say “sure, you need a favor, so I’m going to send over the extra $200”? Sure you are.

  • ctporter

    Personally, I believe the “right” thing to do is to help people understand what they are buying when they purchase airfares, reserve hotel rooms, rent a car, etc. etc. online. This issue made me curious if when booking on Expedia if a person has any idea of what the fare class of the ticket may be (yes, you can see what your class of fare is) and then what that means (no, evidently you must go to the airline site to see what that fare class means and the resulting conditions are for that class) That led me to notice there is a link to bereavement, and interestingly enough, they state that some of the discount fares available by booking direct may be less expensive for a person. What bereavement fares do is allow flexibility in changes to the return flight it seems. The “right” thing for airlines to do is make change fees less onerous for all travelers. The “humane”, “considerate”, “compassionate” thing to do is waive fees under special conditions.

  • Alan Gore

    Southwest has five one-stop flights a day on this route. She could have booked direct and when the death popped up, changed with no penalty.

    Don’t cancel the Delta reservations. Just abandon them and book WN, giving Delta the joy of flying an empty seat.

  • Ben

    > changed with no penalty.

    No penalty, but still the fare difference which she thinks, rightly or wrongly, is outrageous.

  • Dutchess

    As one of the “rules are rules commenters” I don’t think any of us are suggesting she shouldn’t have booked a discounted ticket, but I do suggest people understand what tickets they’re buying and the restrictions. I also find it hard to believe that she was hung up on for simply saying “This is outrageous.”

    Now, when my father passed unexpectedly I was in the exact same scenario as OP. I had a ticket leaving later that week, which I immediately called to change to an earlier flight. I knew there would be a change fee since I was now booking a last minute flight. UAL was kind enough to reimburse the $150 change fee for me since it involved a death. It required me to scan and upload a copy of the death certificate. In a week or two I got my change fee back. I appreciated UAL’s policy that allows these kinds of changes in the event of a death, but I would never demand they change the rules for after I purchased a ticket in the same way I would expect them to honor their end of my ticket purchase.

  • SierraRose 49

    Change fees (with the exception of SW) are now part of most every airline, and certainly have become a staple with the big 3 legacy airlines. That part I get. What is difficult to accept is that the original ticket was $460, bought and paid for. And to change that ticket from Friday to Tuesday incurred a $200 change fee + $375 ($575) more than the ORIGINAL ticket for a grand total of $575+$460=$1,035 (is that correct?). Also, if the OP’s husband did indeed pay the additional $575, and flew out on Tuesday, Delta would have an opportunity to re-sell his Friday seat at another possibly high price. Yes, Delta is free to charge whatever price they want so their corporation operates at a profit. Still, charging exorbitant prices when a close relative dies does not seem right.

  • SierraRose 49

    Sorry to read that you lost your father unexpectedly. Definitely throws one’s life into a tizzy. May I ask if your last-minute flight on UAL was recently. I ask because I didn’t think any of the major airlines reimbursed change fees involving a death in the family. Maybe they do and bravo for so doing.

  • Annie M

    This should be brought to Deltas attention. I am usually one of the die hards you speak about but the writer never said she wasn’t willing to pay the difference and had the rep. been a little kinder, she may have been able to rebook and then submit a copy of the mothers death certificate later to Delta to see if they could possibly issues some kind of credit for a future trip. But for the rep. to hand up on her is inexcusable.

    My Mother recently passed and anyone I have had to contact about things that have had to be dealt with have all been kind and apologetic. I understand why this consumer was so angry.

  • FQTVLR

    I think airlines should have a specific set of rules for bereavements–including the documentation needed. Discounts should be in the form of refunds back to the card used for purchase after all documentation has been provided. Many deaths are sudden and travel must be arranged or changed in a very short period of time. With that said, the my skeptical meter is going off big time. Whenever someone tells me “honestly” to indicate they would never omit something, make something up or lie, I think they are being less than honest. (Heard “honestly” a lot when I taught high school for 25 years.) I think you should look into this on the off-chance that Delta has a recording of the call.

  • BubbaJoe123

    You can only change with no penalty if you buy a full price ticket.
    Choosing a random day, Delta’s $250 one way SMF-MSP, Southwest’s about the same, but a changeable Southwest ticket is well over $500.
    Plus, you’re flying Southwest, with no assigned seats. No thanks.

  • disqus_wK5MCy17IP

    I wonder if Delta suggested scrapping the original ticket, applying for a refund via their process for deaths in the family (there are instructions on their website) and purchasing a new ticket.Of course, the refund would have been sent to Travelocity, which is a whole other issue, but that can happen when one books through an OTA and then makes changes directly with an airline.

    I don’t think that the LW is being punished for booking a discount fare. Up until the point that they tried to change the itinerary, they were benefiting from it. Had the death in the family occurred when there was no existing ticket, the last minute ticket may have cost more than the combination of the original ticket, fee and fare difference. And, we also don’t know if Delta offered another option that cost less when applying the fare rules. For example, a refund and the option to buy a new flight on a different route that flew directly to Sioux Falls. Just because the LW wanted to keep the stop in Minneapolis doesn’t mean that the flight wasn’t always twice as expensive on Tuesday vs. Friday. That’s the reality of the either the fare that was chosen and/or the fare rules that one agreed to. Not a punishment because the airline doesn’t provide the changes one wants at the price one demands.

  • The cheapest Southwest fares (“WannaGetAway” column) are also changeable without penalty. Please don’t lie to protect your employer.

  • BubbaJoe123

    My employer? I can’t see why…oh, wait, you think that because I’m not a WN fanboy that I must work for another airline? Got it. Nope, no connection to any airline. I just don’t like flying WN when I can avoid it. In the markets I fly to, they are rarely the cheapest, and I find their product, particularly the lack of seat assignments, priority boarding, and First Class, to be inferior.
    With the cheapest SW fares, you can cancel the ticket and reuse the value later on. So, if you book a WannaGetAway fare for Monday, and decide you want to travel on Wednesday, you can apply the full value of the WannaGetAway fare to your ticket for Wednesday. If there are WannaGetAway fares available for Wednesday, you’re all set. If there aren’t, you have to pay the higher fare.
    What you can’t do on WannaGetAway fares is change to a different flight at the airport (i.e. book the 4PM, get there early, and catch the 2PM). You can only do this if there are still WannaGetAway tickets available on the 2PM, which is very unlikely day of. On Delta, if there’s space, I can do this for no fee. Non-status pax have to pay $50, I believe.

  • Dutchess

    This was about two years ago on UAL. I had to pay the change fee then go to their refund page and do a request for the refund under e-ticket refund. Looking back they only refunded me $100 of the $150 change fee but that was fine. It was better than a poke in the eye.

  • jsn55

    Delta management needs to hear this story. I don’t fly Delta often, but have always been favorably impressed when I need to deal with an agent. I flew NorthWest often, and I know many of the agents are still with Delta, and they were always great.

    This agent was having a bad day and should have never been on the phone. If he didn’t police himself, his supervisor should have. Treating a customer like this is inexcusable. If the agent had no authority to waive the change fee, that’s one thing. But he should have been NICE about it, cordial, commiserating with the death of a family member. He could have asked a supervisor to intervene, he could have done many things to take the sting out of a ticket cost now more than doubled. He should be ashamed; he should write the OP a letter of apology.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree. I think it’s totally acceptable to enforce the rules as they apply, even in this kind of case, but I think it should (always) be done professionally and with courtesy. On a side note, I DO think there are some extreme cases (to which I don’t think this case is one) where the customers behavior, language and other forms of communication are clearly “out to bounds” such as using explicit or implicit threats or violence or harm, vulgar or otherwise socially unacceptably language, whereby I think it’s ok and right to promptly and professionally end the call unilaterally.

  • Pat

    I would want to hear the recording of the call. I would bet that some details were left out about the call. The Delta person possibly hung up with cause. I cannot imagine the person said “So what”. Possibly the OP became angry because Delta was not going to do exactly what she wanted. If that was the case, it could have been caused by the stress of the moment, but we have also read stories on this site where we found out the caller left out they became abusive. Let’s face it, the days of bereavement fares are over. At best, you can hope you can change the ticket, less a change fee.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree that the hang-up was (absent a more clear and complete record of who said what to whom and how; and I think it’s fair to recognize that there MAY BE some material facts that have been left out, which, if known, might alter the case) was not ok.. and Delta should come back to that issue and address it with the passenger. As far as the actions, I can’t fault Delta here as it seems as if they applied the rules (yes, I am a rules-are-rules person, who implicitly by the articles wording, seems to be without a heart) as they applied to this case. I DO think that Delta’s agent should take the time to walk the passenger thru their ticketing policy – whatever it is – and explain what their options may have, and costs and processes for each.

  • RightNow9435

    The last-minute fares airlines charge are incredibly expensive.A couple I know in southern California saw the husband’s father pass away in NY state. The airfares were around $2000 for both to fly back immediately. So they did the only logical thing….rented a car and drove back in 3 1/2 days.

  • RightNow9435

    at my previous job, which often involved phone calls from people less than happy, we were allowed to hang up if the person started cursing or threatening. But saying “that’s outrageous” does not warrant a hang up. Delta needs to apologize.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree.. however, as I noted, I think that we’d need to hear exactly who said what, to whom, and how… but… I agree with that IF it was materially only a “that’s outrageous” … and not something a bit more…. colorful… like “that’s f___ing outrageous” then that’s something different… So, as noted by a later poster, given the [understandable] emotions of the moment, for me personally, it does not stretch credibility that perhaps there was a bit more to the overall conversation prior to the disconnect — but again, I’d want proof of that before I “convicted” either party of misdeed.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree.. this is the kind of case – given the emotions in play, the amount of money in play – that I can see things or words being used by BOTH sides, that, perhaps should not have been used or could have been ‘better’ communicated or expressed. However, as I noted in an earlier post, while I do like to given customers the initial presumption of ‘innocence’ or credibility, before I really go forward, I like to get some facts that are independent or are objective in nature — so I agree, a recording would be an excellent piece of data to have here.

  • sirwired

    The agent should not have been rude and hung-up on the customer, but otherwise I don’t see how Delta is obligated to make the change cheaply. A last-minute change is the sort most likely to result in a loss to the airline if it were uncompensated.

    Big companies like their money just as much as consumers like theirs, and have no lesser claim to it.

    If she had not lost her cool, she may have been able to wrangle a change-fee waiver; such waivers are not uncommon.

  • marathon man

    Ive had reps hang up on me for things. They never save the recordings. In fact I bet they really dont even make recordings of all calls. Only Amex surely does–the constant beep you hear when talking to them is the same one youd hear if you called the local police to report a noise complaint or something. And we cant really record calls without telling the other party we plan to (at least thats the law in my state) and then if we do that they wont continue the conversation. That said, I believe the story… I think what should be done is this:

    Airline reps or reps of any company should always ACT like they care or sympathize with your plight. Reps should TRY to help. Even if they cannot, the act of trying goes a long way.

    Heres how a bank did this to me once when I called in about a fee:

    “Oh let me see sir… Ill try to get it waived. Hold please…

    Sir I am still here, I am just checking with a supervisor…

    Ok sir I did try everything but could not waive it. I am so sorry. ”

    For me, this was enough. I had to accept the fee. But the rep tried. And guess what, I dont care if the rep merely places me on hold and filed his nails while watching sports updates on his pc while I waited. The fact is, he gave me the impression he tried to help. Lie to me but make me happy.

  • joycexyz

    Do we know Delta’s side of the story? In my experience, the customer’s attitude makes a big difference. I may be totally wrong here, but was Mrs. Parker polite and respectful and asking for the agent’s help? We know the airlines no longer provide bereavement fares and that the ticket was a discount ticket purchased through an OTA, but a polite plea for help and making the agent feel he/she could make a difference might have resulted in a more satisfying outcome. A big red flag to me was her saying that she sputtered “That’s outrageous!” before the alleged hang-up.

  • MarieTD

    This is OT, but I worked at a hospital that wanted two weeks notice prior to taking funeral leave. The policy didn’t last long. I, too, would like to see a bereavement policy written in plain English. As I age, I notice I have to read and reread policy statements to understand what they’re about.

  • Lee

    My spidey senses are tingling; customer service reps know the calls are recorded – OR could be recorded and something is just tweaking me that the hang up part of this story is not true; maybe it is, of course, but I just doubt it. For whatever it is worth, I hope the call was recorded and the truth revealed – either confirming the hang-up – or, not.

    If saying “that’s outrageous” is enough to cause a rep to hang up on a customer, that should be the end of that person’s employment – but…something here seems fishy. Maybe in the OP’s state of mind, being upset over the death of her mother-in-law, etc more happened in the call than she recalls.

    Who knows? But, sure, see if you can help. That sort of money is not a small amount and many people can really simply not afford such huge charges/fees.

  • FQTVLR

    My late father was required to five the USAF 4-days notice before being sick. They did not like their pilots out ill.