Is Delta Airlines Scamming its Customers With Change-Ticket Fees?

The other day I purchased a ticket from Delta Airlines, the world’s largest airline, for international travel in the month of September. Then, as sometimes happens, something came up and I needed to change the dates of my outgoing flight by a few days.

I had no illusions: change ticket fees are expensive. Generally, they reflect the difference in fares between the one purchased and the one now desired, and a straight-up penalty. Nonetheless, when I called Delta I was more or less confident that I’d get a straight price for the change, and that’d be that.

How wrong I was.

So. Wednesday morning (Shanghai time) I called Delta’s premium help line (I’m platinum medallion with the airline) and informed the customer service representative that I’d like to move my outbound flight to a date four days earlier. Within two minutes, the operator quoted me a price – $360 – and then told me that she’d like to send me over to the ‘international desk’ where I’d likely get a better price. Sure enough, I did: $340. Still, it seemed odd to me that different customer service reps at the same airline were quoting different prices to change a ticket. So I decided to wait a day, and see if the price changed.

Less than 24 hours later I called the premium line again. This time I was told that the price for the change would be $560. I told the rep that it’d been $200 cheaper the day before, and to please transfer me to the international desk. Sure enough, at the international desk I was given a cheaper price: $540. Of course, that price was $200 more than what I’d been quoted the day before – a fact that I mentioned to the customer service representative.

His brusque response was to tell me that “prices change every day.” His tone, meanwhile, projected: “You are an idiot.”

I hung up the phone and immediately re-dialed the premium customer service line one more time. This time I reached the friendliest operator yet, and – go figure – the friendliest change ticket fee: $321. I immediately agreed to it. Nonetheless, I was sorely tempted to call back and see if I couldn’t find an operator who would bring it down further. After all, if five calls and five different operators had brought me my cheapest price yet, what could a sixth call do?

And that’s the problem! An airline customer is right to assume that Delta Airlines (nay, any airline) is going to be consistent in how it applies fees and and other penalties across the board. If you want to change your ticket on X day to Y day, the price for doing so should remain consistent (with the band of fare changes), right? At least, that’s message that all of that fine print that comes with my tickets suggests. But, clearly, that’s not happening at Delta Airlines.  In fact, this is the second time I’ve had this very experience in the last 14 months. Back in June 2011, I had a similar experience with Delta operators offering me an even wider band (300% band) of possible change ticket fees. Alas, I didn’t take careful notes that time.

So what’s going on here? How could Delta’s change ticket fees on an international flight reservations vary by more than $200 over the course of a couple of minutes? I can divine four possibilities:

  1. Delta’s customer service representatives are working on a commission basis, and thus have wide latitude to set and sell change ticket fees.
  2. Delta’s customer service representatives are poorly trained and thus don’t know how to obtain best possible pricing for the airlines’ customers via the airlines’ computer system.
  3. Delta’s computer system is buggy, and provides inconsistent results.
  4. Delta’s computer system is highly sophisticated and provides change ticket fees based on customer history and perceived willingness to pay (this isn’t as crazy as it sounds: a few months ago Delta was busted for quoting higher prices to its frequent fliers).

Whatever the cause of the five different quotes, one thing is for certain: Delta customers shouldn’t assume that the airlines’ change ticket fees are assessed on a consistent basis. They’re clearly not. For a reporter with a little time, it’d be interesting to see how these inconsistent charges line up with the fine print related to change ticket fees that come with tickets.

Meanwhile, I’ve contacted Delta’s customer complaint line. Once they’ve responded, I’ll post their thoughts. If they don’t, I’ll reach out to Delta’s media team.