A Tale of Two Airlines: Delta and US Airways Group Flights Reservations Reviewed

passengers-jetwayWe’ve booked flights for the same 60+ passenger group on Delta Airlines for two years running.

Here’s our review of the service we’ve received.

We provide flight and travel services for large groups, and one of our clients is a private middle-school in the Upper Midwest. A service we provide for them is arranging air and ground travel for their annual 7th grade trip. The group varies in size but is always more than 60 travelers, including at least 55 students.

We have used both Delta and US Airways for group flights in the past. For this particular group, the students have flown only on Delta so far (and also Spirit, about which they said “Never again!”). The following is an account of our experiences with the group flights reservation departments of both Delta Airlines and US Airways.

Delta Comes Through with Great Fares and Terms in 2014

Of the major departure and arrival airports that would work for the group’s trip in 2014, the best (and one of the least expensive) option for group fares was Detroit (DTW) to Las Vegas (LAS) on Delta Airlines. We chose Delta based on price, but also because of the group flight terms they offer, which are quite generous in comparison with many other domestic airlines. Delta Group Reservations permits 100% refund on the deposit until 90 days before departure and allows up to 50% name changes on tickets until 48 hours prior to take-off; these terms figured strongly into the decision to fly the group on Delta.

Delta also allows group travel reservation deviations at no charge, which was an attractive option as two of the group members wanted to leave a day earlier than the rest of the group. (Deviation in terms of group travel means that one or more passengers travel on different dates or from different airports than the main group (or both), but remain part of the group reservation.)

Another factor in the decision was that in 2014 Delta’s customer service outshone the other airlines in consideration (US Airways and Spirit), and by a mile. We had to call US Airways twice to get a quote, and both times were on hold for upwards of 20 minutes before speaking to anyone. Once we did get the quote, the fares were much more expensive than those offered by Delta and had worse terms, like a non-refundable deposit, so US Airways was eliminated as an option.

Delta Limits Group Size: A Hint of Problems to Come

One quirk of Delta’s domestic group travel system is that it can handle groups no larger than forty passengers, so the group had to be split into two, with two separate group numbers (the deviating passengers were part of the second group, with different record locator or confirmation numbers, but the same inquiry number as the rest of the group). The de facto result for groups with more than forty travelers flying on Delta is that reservations must be managed for multiple groups, which in our experience doubles (at a minimum) the amount of time and attention necessary. Although in effect there were two separate groups, the per-person fare quote was the same for all passengers.

Once the reservations were made with Delta, things went pretty smoothly, although there were a couple of minor errors and miscommunications from the Delta Group Reservations staff. For example, when the tickets were issued, we noticed two of the names had been misspelled by Delta and so had to request new tickets for those passengers.

Another problem occurred when Delta representatives told us twice that we could pay fees for checked bags for the group when we checked them in online, and so we communicated this to our client. At check-in time, however, we found that there was no way to pay the fees online for the group. A phone call to Delta confirmed that for group travel, Delta requires payment for checked bags to be made at the airport, either at the Delta counter or at a self-service kiosk.

Delta Ground and Air Service Were Great

As for the flights themselves, the group reported them to be uneventful and free of complications. Hats off to Delta for that, as it’s not an insignificant task to smoothly manage air travel and luggage for 50+ twelve- and thirteen-year-olds.

2015: A Different Story

The errors made by Delta the previous year were inconveniences more than real problems, and didn’t really cause much disruption to the actual travel. So, when it came time to begin planning the 2015 trip, we immediately thought of Delta. Hours of frustration later, we are left wondering how they were able to so completely transform their domestic group reservation headquarters into a such a hotbed of broken promises and a bastion of seeming ineptitude in the space of only one year.

For this year’s trip, either Las Vegas or Phoenix would work as a destination. We excluded Spirit Airlines because of the extra baggage fees they charge and concerns about quality of service, which left Delta and US Airways (time and other requirements ruled out any other airlines).

Initially, the best price we were quoted was again on Delta to Las Vegas. Unlike the previous year, the entire group was listed under a single reservation and inquiry number, although divided into three subgroups, with forty passengers again the maximum in a subgroup. Also unlike the previous year, we were given different fare quotes for each of the three separate subgroups, a fact the Delta representative attributed to changes in seat inventory that resulted from each successive subgroup reservation.

Strike 1: $1000 Overcharge, Wrong Reservations

When we received the group travel agreement from Delta, we were somewhat surprised to note that for the first subgroup of forty passengers, the fare was $5 more per seat than verbally quoted, and $30 more per seat for the second subgroup of twenty-seven, more than $1,000 difference. Additionally, the contract listed only two subgroups, failing to reflect the requested deviations even though a completely different fare had been quoted for them.

We never made an issue of this or even brought it to Delta’s attention, because in the meantime we had secured cheaper flights to Phoenix and so ended up cancelling the initial reservation to Las Vegas. The flights to Phoenix were on US Airways; the reservations went smoothly and the contract we were emailed moments after getting off the phone with the representative accurately reflected both the desired flights and quoted fare.

Before the deposit was paid on the US Airways flights, prices dropped on similar flights on Delta. Although slightly more than the fare quoted by US Airways, the group chose, unfortunately as it later turned out, to reserve the Delta flights as the airline had provided such great service on the flights to Las Vegas the previous year.

Having spent countless hours communicating with group reservations specialists from various airlines, we can attest to the fact that the quality of the service provided by these representatives varies widely, not just among airlines but from agent to agent. When judged against this background, the Delta representative who made the reservations to Phoenix for us seemed relatively knowledgeable and competent, which makes the series of blunders that followed that much harder to explain.

Strike 2: “At” Versus “@”

After making the reservation, we hadn’t received the contract from Delta by the next day, so we called to request it again. Again, it didn’t show up in our inbox, spam quarantine, or anywhere else. Two more calls later, we discovered the problem was that the email kept failing because Delta had added the word “at” in addition to the symbol “@”to the beginning of our domain in the email address. It was at this point that we began to seriously question Delta’s ability to competently handle a group travel transaction of more than $30,000, and, as it turned out, rightly so.

Strike 3: Delta Fails to Keep Its Word

Once we received the contract, we quickly noticed that the first subgroup of forty passengers were booked on a different return flight than the rest of the group. This flight was scheduled to depart Phoenix at 9am, while the rest of the group was scheduled to depart at 11:30pm (the flight we had originally requested for the entire group). Additionally, the incorrect flight had a stop in Minneapolis – not at all advisable with large groups of adolescents and pre-adolescents.

It was really difficult to understand how Delta had made such a glaring error. Not only had we requested the entire group of sixty-seven passengers travel on the same, non-stop, redeye return flight, we told Delta the specific flight number for the flight on which we wanted the passengers booked. And, we verbally confirmed the flight numbers, times, and destinations with the Delta representative before ending the phone call.

We were a bit shocked at how defensive the Delta representative was when we called to try to correct the problem. Several times we were told that we must have booked the first forty passengers on the wrong flight inadvertently, when quite obviously the mistake was a by-product of Delta’s group reservation system dividing large groups into sub-groups of forty or fewer. We even asked the Delta rep whether she thought it was a coincidence that the mistake involved forty passengers, the same number as the maximum group size Delta allows.

Eventually, after quite a while on hold, the Delta agent told us that the fare we had been quoted was correct for the flight shown on the contract. If we wanted a new group reservation with the actual flights we had originally requested and thought we were getting all along, it would cost about $50 more per person in the first subgroup (x 40 passengers = $2,000!) We respectfully insisted that Delta honor the original quote. We included facts, figures, and details from the notes we took during the initial reservation, including the exact fare quoted for each subgroup.

At this point, we were told that the matter would have to be referred to Delta’s revenue management department. We heard from them two days later; they offered a new fare for the subgroup of forty, about $35 more than the fare we were originally quoted.

We immediately began searching for new flights, and found that the online price (and the group price, which usually follows the online price fluctuations to a certain degree) had dropped on non-stop US Airways flights to Phoenix. We booked those flights instead, reviewed the contract to make sure everything was in order, and paid the deposit. Then we cancelled the flights with Delta.

The Nitty-Gritty: Delta, You Lose

In 2014, Delta did a decent job with the reservations and pre-flight arrangements, and a good job with the air and ground service for the group travelers. In 2015, they probably could have screwed up the reservations more completely, but it would have been difficult. In the end, Delta was ruled out in favor of US Airways.

Two reservations were made with US Airways Group Reservations, with the first one being cancelled in favor of flying Delta. At all times the US Airways representatives were polite, professional, and most importantly, the verbal quotes they gave us matched the fares listed in the group travel agreements, which in both cases we received by email immediately after making the reservations. We can only hope the service our clients receive before, during, and after their flights is as good. We’ll update this article after the flights later this year and let you know how the trip went.

Here’s why we would think twice about using Delta Group Reservations in the future:

  • They made an obvious mistake and refused to make a good-faith effort to correct the error.
  • They refused to honor a verbal quote given by phone.
  • We made two reservations with Delta Group Reservations. Neither contract matched the fares quoted.

In addition to flights, we’re also making arrangements for this group for a charter bus to pick them up at the airport and be at their disposal throughout the duration of the trip, as well as car rental arrangements for the extra vehicles they need for supplies and overflow passengers. We’re currently accepting new clients for group travel planning services. We specialize in groups of more than 10 passengers, especially large groups over 50 people. We can help with flights, buses, car rental, hotels, activities, tours, and lots more – and you won’t believe how reasonable our fees are. If your team, school, church, or other organization is planning on taking a trip and you’d like a quote for your services, please contact us. Discounts for non-profit organizations are available.

Posted: January 13, 2015

Leave a comment