Did Delta’s Stranded Passengers Wait Longer Than Necessary for Lack of an Interline Agreement with American?

By Jonathan Spira on 8 April 2017
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Delta Air Lines suffered over the past week what arguably was one of its worst operational meltdowns ever. Thousands of flights were cancelled, leaving literally hundreds of thousands of travelers in places they didn’t want to be.

Since the meltdown occurred at the start of spring break, the carrier had very little leeway in terms of open seats that it could rebook passengers (whose flights were either delayed or cancelled) on and the number of cancellations meant there were thousands of crew members who could not be easily repositioned.

Thousands of passengers have reported that it’s impossible to get through to the airline by any means including old-fashioned phone calls. Our test calls to the airline were greeted by the message, “All circuits are busy. Please try again later.”

The airline’s recovery “has not been ideal,” said Gil West, the chief operating officer in a statement.

What’s that, you say? Why didn’t Delta, the nation’s second largest carrier, just do what other airlines do, book some of the passengers on another airline, a practice known as interline booking?

Interline agreements, which govern such bookings, are voluntary contracts airlines enter into in order to allow passengers traveling on a multiple-flight, multiple-airline itinerary to be booked on one ticket. Such agreements typically also cover irregular operations, or irrops, where an airline transfers a stranded passenger to another airline.

In other words, airlines would help each other out, even while they were competing.

That practice ended, at least for Delta Air Lines, in September 2015, when it decided not to participate in industry-wide interline agreements. Instead, it said it would negotiate separately with American Airlines, the world’s largest airline, as well as with United Airlines, the nation’s number four airline by passenger volume. Delta and American were unable to come to terms on rates “for moving customers between carriers during irregular operations,” American said at the time, primarily because Delta had decided to raise its interline fees substantially.

Since then, the two airlines have not had an interline agreement in place, although Delta did negotiate a separate agreement with United.

At the time, neither Delta nor American publicly admitted the lack of an interline agreement could result in much disruption, but it’s important to acknowledge that such agreements are similar to an insurance policy: one hopes one will never need it but it is extremely important to have it when one does.

“With nine hubs and gateways and nearly 7,000 daily flights, we have more ability to re-route our customers during operational disruption than any other airline in the world,” American said at the time.

But back to the tens of thousands of stranded Delta passengers this week. Many waited three or four days for a seat and some have told Frequent Business Traveler they are still waiting as of Saturday afternoon.

While American’s flights were undoubtedly quite full due to spring break as well, no airline’s load factor is 100% and, had an interline agreement been in place, Delta agents could have booked at least some of their stranded passengers on AA.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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