Tuesday, 22 January 2008

delta airline's christmas present to me: the surprise stopover in senegal

i know that i am way behind on my blogging. i will get photos from mozambique and st. lucia up FAST. but first, on the way to st. lucia i wrote my letter to delta and i thought i should share it here... so without further ado...

January 22, 2008

Dear Edward Bastian and Jeff Robertson,

I am writing to inform you of an egregious failure on the part of Delta management. At the forefront, I am asking for compensation for the extreme inconvenience your failure created. These were not ineluctable issues--all of what follows could have been avoided.

On December 21st 2007 I boarded Delta flight 35 from Johannesburg, South Africa to Atlanta via Dakar with a friend. I was returning from an exhausting work trip just in time to spend the holidays with my family. My Platinum status had allowed me to upgrade to Business Class. The cabin crews were wonderful, as was the flight from JNB to Dakar.

However, about an hour after arriving in Dakar, I overheard one of the pilots say, “I don’t know why we fly into places that don’t have the technicians or parts to repair these things.” I didn’t really pay much attention, but after we’d been on the ground for at least two hours (it was now about 3 a.m.), the pilot announced that our flight was being cancelled. We were told that there were technical problems with the plane and that we would be spending the night in Dakar. I later learned from one of the pilots that there was a problem with the flight computer and that Delta didn’t have the part that was needed in Dakar. In fact, you didn’t have the part anywhere in Europe or even in Atlanta. The part had to be flown from LAX, and that would take at least 24 hours.

Deplaning took over an hour because the airport in Dakar only had one bus transporting passengers to the terminal. When I arrived at the terminal there was a long line of passengers making their way through immigration. This process took too long, and eventually we were handed laminated cards indicating that we were Delta transit passengers.

This is the deplaning

We never saw a Delta employee on the ground in Dakar.

We attempted to get our luggage. The luggage collection room looked liked a luggage graveyard. Thousands of bags were crammed between the turnstiles. As I had waited already about an hour to deplane and make it through customs, I assumed that my luggage was somewhere in the piles of luggage. This was not the case. The Delta flight 35 luggage did not begin to be unloaded until 45 minutes after we arrived in the room to retrieve it.

people waiting for bags
mikki waiting for bags

bags...loads and loads of bags!
if your bags are lost, their final resting place is apparently senegal.

I watched as baggage handlers threw bags from the carts, to the ground (for no reason), back onto the same cart, and then onto the turnstile. I watched them break a wrapped sculpture that had “FRAGILE” written all over it. I saw men rummaging through bags. When my bags finally arrived, my locks had been broken off and my duffel bag was open. With the locks broken off, my one large suitcase and custom-made duffel bag are unusable: ironically, they were made for durability.

After collecting our bags and making it through customs, we had NO idea what we were supposed to do. I looked all over the terminal for a Delta representative, but NONE were to be found. Eventually I found one woman, smartly dressed, who said she worked for a contracting company that was hired by Delta. I asked her what I should do. She said she thought a line was forming on the other side of the partition to take people to a hotel. She had no sign, and no indication that she had anything to do with the airline. Many passengers were wandering around aimlessly at 4:30am trying to figure out what we were to do--some with small children who were crying. There was no water and no food. We had been on the ground for at least three and a half hours at this point. The cabin crew from the flight was long gone. They said that they were rendered useless in Dakar and they could do nothing to help us. People were panicking. Parents with small children were dependent on the assistance of other passengers simply to know where to go and how to get to the hotel.

We waited in an incredibly long line, where a van took 15 people at a time (one trip every 35 minutes) to a hotel. After waiting another hour (we were lucky because we near the front of the line), as the sun was starting to come up, we finally got to go to the hotel. Non-airport staff again threw luggage with reckless abandon onto the top of the van. The hotel was a short 10-minute drive from the airport. I am still uncertain way this process took so long. Such was to be my entire experience in Dakar. As the luggage came off the roof the workers demanded payment. They yelled and intimidated people, and many eventually gave them money.

our ride to the hotel

the baggage guys, who extorted payment for their "services."

As we pulled up to the hotel, I thought it was a joke. Delta put up a plane full of people at an insecure, run-down hotel: paint falling off the fa├žade; non-functional locks on the door; no place for valuables; connecting balconies; etc. There was one woman at the reception desk to help us, who doled out keys (on wooded dowels) slowly. No hotel staff offered assistance with luggage. The elevators barely worked. The rooms were disgusting -- brown running water, uncomfortable and dirty beds.

the hotel--does it look nice? well, that's an illusion. it's a rat hole.

Again, Delta was nowhere to be found. When we asked the receptionist when we were expecting to leave, she didn’t know. We asked for the Delta representative and she laughed and said there was no one there. It was too early. “They work at midnight.” She told us that later in the day they would post a sign for when we were to be ready to go.

the following photos will not be included in my letter...this is the other stuff we did in dakar:

the view from my room

i was in need of some stuff from the pharmacy so this dude showed us the way

we walked through this field where people were slaughtering goats and drying their hides
then people took the goat parts and dumped them into the ocean...
we didn't got swimming

tada: the CDC...who knew

mikki, i can't remember his name...
he was sweet

the beach...which was also used as a dump.
i hurt my foot when i stepped on a goat vertebre

being silly in the ocean/dump of dakar...

mikki making la playa look much better!


I tried to get some sleep but the noise outside the hotel was unbearable. I went down to the lobby to find some water and food. I was told I had to buy water--Delta was not paying for “drinks”. With brown water coming out the faucets, I hardly consider clean water a luxury! As an international public health official for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, I would argue that potable water is a human right. Without West African Francs, I was unable to get water. Dehydrated from flying for so long and being up all night without access to potable water this really pushed me over the edge.

The lobby was full of other passengers in a similar emotional and physical state. By 10 a.m., passengers were crying and yelling. Weddings were being missed; small children were exhausted; everyone was worried about making their holiday plans. There was still no sign of Delta anywhere. Nothing had been posted; no one had any information. One enterprising gentleman called Delta from his cell phone. He was told that the flight would not leave until 11 p.m. that night. I decided to call Delta too. I figured I was also lucky because I enjoy Platinum Medallion status, so I have a call-in number that allows me to talk to more skilled Delta staff.

The Delta telecenter staff were incredibly unempowered. My first hope was to rebook both my friend and I on the same DL 35 flight on the 22nd Dec. I was told there were no seats available. I spent six hours on the phone with Delta off and on throughout the day. At one point, I was told that the best way to secure that I was home for Christmas on the 25th was to fly coach from Dakar to CDG at 11:59 22 Dec (almost 23) and then business from CDG to ATL for arrival the afternoon of the 23rd. They reiterated numerous times that the DL 35 flight on the 23rd was totally full. I agreed to the arrangement and my friend was rebooked on an SAA flight at 3 a.m. to JFK.

Because I was traveling with a paper ticket, I had to have an agent change the ticket. I was told to go to the airport and see a Delta agent to make the change. Again, there was NO Delta presence at the airport! We arrived at the airport at 6 p.m., and asked all over for help. Finally a gentleman explained that Delta staff does not arrive until after 12:midnight. I started to cry, explaining that if my Air France flight left at 11:59, meeting a Delta agent at midnight would not help--I would surely miss the flight. We talked to Air France, but they were totally un-helpful and said there was nothing they could do. We wandered all around the airport hoping to find someone who knew the phone number for someone who worked for Delta. We got some leads, but never were able to connect with anyone. I returned to the hotel at 8 p.m., exhausted, hungry, and frustrated. I called Delta’s call-center and they indicated that there was nothing more they could do. My options were to take the flight they had rebooked me on, or to wait until the original plane was fixed. I begged for a seat on the DL 35 flight. I was again told it was completely booked. As I called my travel agency to see if they could help, my friend told me that she had overheard someone who was able to get on DL 35. I didn’t believe her--just minutes before a Delta representative said it was impossible.

I immediately called the Platinum members desk, which I had been calling all along. At first they said that there were no seats. I told them that someone had just got on the flight. He then told me that there were two seats in business. I said “I am in business!”

He said “Oh” and then rebooked me.

I asked if my friend could have the other seat, and he said no because he couldn’t change her class of service. I tried to explain that it was Delta’s responsibility to get her home. He wouldn’t budge.

I informed many of my other co-passengers that they could call the platinum number and get help. At the last minute, about 10 people were able to get on the flight. All of them had flown in coach. I still don’t know why my friend couldn’t get on the flight, but by this time exhaustion, frustration, and resignation had set in. She flew home on the SAA flight, which was delayed.

We arrived at the airport at midnight. Delta staff did not arrive until 1 a.m. After an incredibly long security check-in, it was apparent that many of the passengers who had flown over in coach were being upgraded to business as an apology. I thought this was an appropriate gesture, but I am still upset that my friend was told she couldn’t fly with me and had to fly on another airline.

Some of the people I helped get on my flight to Atlanta.

I boarded the plane and was completely shocked to discover that it was half-empty. So many of those stranded passengers still at the hotel could have been on that plane!
Many people were still in Dakar when we took off. I am not sure when the original flight made it to Atlanta, but I know that so many more people could have made it to their destinations, with much less hassle had Delta been more present. I thought my Platinum Medallion status would have somehow made all this easier: it didn’t.

Delta should have had staff there managing the process. You didn’t. Delta also should have had staff there to assuage the anxiety of your exhausted passengers. You didn’t. Delta should have had staff on the ground to help us know where to go and what was happening. You didn’t. Delta again failed us by not protecting us from extortion and intimidation at the hotel. You failed to provide information to your passengers that would have helped us feel safe, secure, and taken care of. You failed to protect the health of your passengers by ensuring them access to potable water. It is your responsibility to get passengers to their destination, but was clear to me on Dec 21-23 2007 that this was not your priority.

some of the people we helped

I was very excited when you announced that you would be flying to Lagos. I often travel to West Africa for work and have never understood why American carriers don’t fly directly from the States there, but now I am not sure I can trust you to get me there safely. Unless you demonstrate that you are working on these issues, and have your passengers’ safety and security--as well as an expeditious arrival at their destination—as a priority, I will choose to fly via Europe on a competitor.

A lack of staff on the ground in these places is dangerous. As you surely know, Nigeria is rife with American kidnappings and murders. When I travel there diplomatically, I am protected by eight armed troops in Jeeps in front and behind my secured and armed Suburban. I cannot imagine the danger a similar experience in Lagos would present. Your irresponsibility would be life-threatening in Lagos.

I expect compensation. I am sure many of the passengers on that flight have not demanded compensation. Frankly, I think it is a shame that it wasn’t offered. You had mechanical difficulties, which are in you control.

As compensation I expect:

• One voucher for an international flight in business class;
• Complimentary upgrades on all my international flights this year, regardless of normal “availability.” I have been on many flights with available business class seats, but my complementary upgrades often are not accepted!
• Free companion upgrades on all international flights I take with a friend/colleague this year;
• Compensation for the exorbitant amount of time I spent on the phone with your poorly trained staff;
• Notification of changes in your operations management in Africa and at the special member services call center.

I wish that all my fellow passengers could be given the same compensation. You lost many return passengers that day. Any good business knows that keeping a customer is worth far more than recruiting a new one.

I await your reply to the issues and problems that I have presented here.




Dianna said...

i think that your letter should include photos, for effect (except the one of you in the water, with your arms outstretched. you look too happy).

Amiee said...

OMG that was the most RIDICULOUS story I've ever heard in my life. I read the entire letter. You'll have to keep the blog updated with their response. I am dying to see what they say. I would have flipped the hell out!!!!!!!!! And those poor people traveling with CHILDREN!!??? OH HELL NO.

sylvia at ticklethepear.livejournal.com said...

Good thing SN doesn't require a visa!

I refuse to fly any US flag carrier anymore. Screw Fly America.

That said, I'm not looking forward to my multiple flights to Salvador de Bahia in March on Delta.

Chelsea Belle said...

Wow!! Kimberly that is such a nightmare!!!
I hope that they can grant your requests and then some! I have had bad experiences with Delta before, and this makes me want to run screaming in the other direction should I have to fly with them again!

Keep us updated!

KamilahNYC said...

Awesome letter! Wow - I am dying at how horrible this story was. I feel bad for those who weren't as aggressive and/or knowledgeable about what is and isn't acceptable. Unfortunately Delta is known to take forever on these types of things, but you deserve all of those compensations you are asking for! LAME

supersonicjan said...

so for future reference next time you get stuck in Dakar, I know someone working at the US embassy there...

two forks said...

i can't (and can) believe the horror you went through! please keep us posted on how delta responds!! i'm glad you made it back safely... and i'm glad to have found your new green blog! i love it. and i'm anxiously awaiting moz pics!!!