KABOOM! Delta Sacrifices 50 Passengers To College Basketball



Once again, it’s head exploding time at Ethics Alarms. If you had asked me if an airline could do this, I would have answered “I hope not.” If you had asked me if an airline would do this, I would have answered, “Never!” But an airline did do this, and apparently isn’t even sorry about it.


When maintenance issues grounded the Sunday afternoon Delta aircraft flight scheduled to carry the University of Florida men’s basketball team from Gainesville to Storrs, Connecticut for a 7 pm (E.S.T.) Monday game against the University of Connecticut, Delta canceled Delta Connection flight 5059 to  Atlanta, kicked its 50 passengers off the flight without telling them why, and converted their flight into a charter to Connecticut so the Gators wouldn’t be inconvenienced. It was reported that the bumped passengers were deceitfully told that there were mechanical problems, but never let on to the fact that the problems related to a different flight. Then, once they had been told their flight was cancelled, some passengers saw what had been their plane being boarded by some very tall young men.

A fair and honest, though still outrageous, explanation would have gone something like, “Nothing’s wrong with the plane, but the guys in charge here are big Gator basketball fans, so they say to hell with your appointments, business plans, family gatherings, connecting flights, vacations and funerals, what really matters is “GO GATORS!” Of course, honesty in this case might have caused passengers to be vary from the sheep-like demeanor airports procedures condition them to lapse into as soon as they start the check-in process.

Delta spokesman Michael Thomas explained that the passengers from flight 5059 were accommodated on other flights and given vouchers valid for use through Delta for future trips. Some of them didn’t get out until Monday; the flight the basketball team commandeered was supposed to take off  at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

Message to Delta: That’s no explanation or justification, and your company is untrustworthy, dishonest, high-handed and disrespectful of your customers’ plans, needs and lives. I am willing to endure delays and inconveniences that are incidental to the flying hell called air travel these days, but only if I am confident that other passengers must take the same risks and endure the same mind-killing uncertainty and boredom that I do. If the airlines are going to pick arbitrary favorites and choose to wreck my plans and waste my time for something as parochial as a college basketball game, it will take more than a lousy voucher to satisfy me. This means war.

As usual with the Kaboom feature, let me ask readers to note at which stage of this story did their head finally blow…

1. When you learned that Delta had bumped a plane full of passengers who had paid for a flight to Atlanta so that it could accommodate the local basketball team…

2. When you learned that the passengers were lied to about the reason for the cancellation…

3. When you learned that some of those bumped could get to their destinations until the next say, or, my personal favorite…

4. When it dawned on you that the team’s flight was scheduled for Sunday afternoon, and it game wasn’t until the next evening, meaning that they could have left on Monday flight without missing anything but a night in a hotel, allowing the Atlanta-bound passengers to get what they paid for.

Well, gotta get the Shamwow, the squeegee and the mop.

My office is a bloody mess.


Pointer: Res Ipsa Loquitur

Facts: Gainesville Sun

Graphic: Macrobusiness

32 thoughts on “KABOOM! Delta Sacrifices 50 Passengers To College Basketball

  1. #2.

    @ #1 my blood began boiling, but didn’t explode.
    I only say that because I’m already numbed to the fact that our culture is slowly slipping into a “celebrities are the new aristocracy” mindset, and athletes being a subset of celebrities, I’m not at all surprised that a large industry just bent over backwards to accommodate them over the Common Man.

  2. Wow. I think your rage is a little under-stated in this case. That is truly, staggeringly, stupendously stupid. Over and over again, as you point out. And apparently, still.

  3. Of course you did miss Delta Airlines contract, Chapter XIV, Section C paragraph 231 subparagraph 2, where they clearly state that Delta reserves the right to modify existing itineraries to accommodate individuals deemed more socially valuable that the original ticket holders.

    Since those who purchased the tickets, by purchasing, agreed to that policy then they have no complaint.

    Please format for sarcasm.

    • Delta’s contract of carriage:
      “Delta may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, change seat assignments, and alter or omit stopping places shown on the ticket at any time.”

      They don’t actually SAY “for any reason”.

      They do promise “reasonable efforts”, a standard which I’m convinced they fell short of, but which probably has a technical legal meaning that doesn’t match the everyday one.

      • Of course they have to have that provision. They also have an obligation to fulfill their end of the deal in fairness and good faith, which they did not. Delta’s stunt may be enough to meet the low standards of the law, but it doesn’t come within a mile of being ethical. “They are more profitable than you, so we’ll make you suffer isn’t ethical. In fact, they chose one client over 50, which among other things, is terrible business judgment.

  4. What important business of the bumped passengers – you know, commerce, and all that other un-sexy economic activity that doesn’t happen in connection with athletes’ sweating on a basketball court – was impeded and harmed by the fraudulent bumping?

    Was anyone bumped from that flight who was on her way to an abortion, perhaps?

    Perhaps there is a spare idle bureaucrat in the FTC who will lasso Delta Airlines to provide a laborious, decade-long accounting for this, a la the MTNA case – plus some hungry lawyers to represent the bumped passengers and collect justified damages.

    • I assume you are being sarcastic. If not, you’re an asshole. It doesn’t matter WHAT the bumped passengers were traveling for. Lying to passengers to “assist” local celebrities is unethical, period.

  5. I just mentally sighed and lowered my opinion of Delta still further. I’m unfortunately way too used to far worse conduct for this to really even rouse up notable anger.


  6. I got #1 and #2 delivered simultaneously to me, so they were really the kaboom. #3 isn’t a huge surprise, once 1 and 2 have happened I would have been more surprised if they HAD managed to get out in short order. #4… #4 has made the burst bits of brain scattering my office catch fire and dance the macarena.

  7. Playing devil’s advocate: Delta is obliged to do it’s best to meet all it’s obligations, as well as to minimize losses due to missed flights. The failure to fulfill a charter contract would have likely been higher than the direct penalty accrued to inconvenience passengers. In some ways, it’s an extension of the way they provide better service to fist class customers in general. They may have a contractual requirement to favor charters over mass air transit.

    No defense of the lie. The fact that the team could have afforded the delay better is a mark against the team, if they were informed of that fact and given the option of a delay.

    • Delta certain does need to do the most good for the most people. However cancelling ticket holder’s flights for reasons that do not directly cancel *their* flight does not do the most good – it only fouls up an equal number of people that it seeks to benefit. Did Delta even ask if people were willing bump?

    • ” In some ways, it’s an extension of the way they provide better service to fist class customers in general.”

      I don’t think so. 1st class ticket holders pay more for more service. Charter flight holders don’t pay more to have ordinary flyers tossed off planes, they pay more to have private flights for themselves. If that particular flight fails due to mechanical difficulties, there is no reasonable logic that says “extra service” is paid for in the form of removing other flyers.

    • “They may have a contractual requirement to favor charters over mass air transit.”

      And yet, you’d have to show where the ordinary flyers agreed to have their flights arbitrarily cancelled to benefit other flyers. Last I checked, I can’t create a contract with Person A that has a term denoting supremacy over a contract with Person B without first ensuring the Person B’s contract contains a term denoting that. Then Person B would be an idiot to say “sure! by all means, I would love go into an agreement with you in which I pay you money and you then render service on a conditional basis, conditions being – do you like others more than me”

      • You’re almost certainly right, but I’m betting they can point to some clause or set of clauses in the big wad of boilerplate that covers them for this. It could be as simple as “flights may be cancelled due to mechanical failure-” Which this was. Not the failure of THEIR PLANE, but due to a mechanical failure nonetheless. If not that, somethign like it that lets them legally get away with it.

        • I was actually in the process of using a short break to peruse their terms of carriage until we decided it was all hands on deck to get our plant stock inside for the big freeze on its way.

          I’ll answer better tonight. But I’m betting you’re right. I merely made my first response based on quick principles.

      • Addendum: You ARE certainly right morally and ethically, and that paying for a charter plane doesn’t give you the right to steal someone else’s. I’m talking about what they are allowed to do, not should do.

      • No, I’ just have show a general item that notifies users that their flights may be cancelled and no such term in the charter flight. They would then have greater contractual obligations to the charter. I would consider it better behavior to try to meet all contractual obligations, even if that results in athletes > general public in some cases. As for your other comment, they don’t just pay for privacy, they also pay for getting the exact flight that they want.

        From Delta’s point of view, not all passengers are equal, nor should they be. Repeat fliers, charters, and first class passegers all rate higher than coach. They should probably have a hardship priority, for people like the one who missed a funeral.

        I am sympathetic to Jack’s take, but only on consequentialist grounds. I’m still thinking about the case though. My initial indignation faded rapidly after I tried to see things from their point of view. I thought I’d post what seemed to be the best counter argument here.

        • From Delta’s viewpoint, seats and airplanes are fungible. A specific airplane may be scheduled for a given flight at some point, but that in no way means that plane “belongs” to ticket holders on a given day any more than it did a week ago or a year ago when it was across the country or ten years ago when it was mostly bauxite in the ground. It’s part of a vast sea of transport capacity that changes from minute to minute that is balanced against momentary demands.

          At what point in time does “a” seat on “a” plane become “your” seat on “your” plane? I’d say if it ever does, it is when it finally carries you through the air with science, but not before.

          Shit breaks. Airlines have reasonable reserve capacity that allows them to respond to most, but not all, equipment failures. Unless one expects them to maintain infinite reserve, there will be conflicts between the needs of passengers. When that happens, charter passengers carry a lot more clout than random unrelated individuals and that is a simple fact of life. That’s why they charter flights instead of buying a bunch of individual tickets.

          No airline could stay in business if it kept so many planes available as hot spares to avoid any possibility of ever canceling a flight. You can be sure those numbers are crunched to a fine powder by a hundred MBA’s, lawyers and lobbyists, to arrive at the final balance.

          But It’s sure fun to hate on big businesses, especially airlines, when somebody gets screwed by circumstances. I hate them too, even though what they do is, for the most part, amazing.

          • Circumstances? What circumstances? If your plane doesn’t work, that’s circumstances. If your plane doesn’t work, and Delta makes your misfortune mine so you get to fly anyway, that’s Delta doing the screwing, not “fate.”

    • Wrong. This reminds me of the culture we have become: Obamacare for everyone EXCEPT the members of Congress who passed it and can keep the Cadillac policies in place for them for decades. Ah, democracy.

      But please, learn your grammar…. “it’s best” in your first line is wrong — as it is a possessive not a contraction; “it’s an extension” is correct — a contraction of “it is.”

      • Not wrong. The odds are very good that, from a purely financial point, it would cost them more to cancel the charter flight than to cancel the commuter flight. When viewed in that light, screwing the normal folks is a good option.

  8. This does not break new ground for airlines. After the following I am prepared to believe anything of them short of torture and murder:

    http://www.wingsmagazine.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=440&Itemid=146 (multiple events)

    Delta is still of course contemptible: I’m not silly enough to pull the “but other people are worse” rationalization. The point is that while shock may be an appropriate reaction, surprise is not.

    Here’s a fascinating potential digression. It’s possible that their contract of carriage is so one-sided that it allows such abuses. If so, contract law won’t stop Delta from doing the same thing again. What recourse is left except boycotts and/or government regulation? At a guess, contract law has so much mass and inertia that it’s hard to change (but Jack can address that decisively better than I can).

    Are boycotts even an option, with the lack of choice air passengers have? I’ve switched to Amtrak but that’s not an option for many.

  9. I was once waiting for a Delta commuter flight on a Sunday night from Pittsburgh to my hometown in eastern PA when delays (6 hours worth) caused the waiting passengers to become so angry and rowdy towards the gate agents that they brought security down.
    I really did not relish getting on a puddle jumper with those people.

    If you are going to travel a lot you need to accept that not everyone is going to treat you like the king/queen you might think you are.
    Travel is very humbling.

    • Being treated like a customer, on the other hand, is a reasonable expectation. Customers get the common decency of status updates. I can’t imagine circumstances under which I would lie to one of my customers.

  10. Well now, after reading all the comments and going to the link texagg04 shared, I retract everything I said or may have implied in my earlier comments, and concede: Never mind.

    Maybe eventually, we’ll all get to hitch rides on Amazon drones. I’d enjoy shipping myself to a couple of spots in Hawaii for a few weeks, then back.

    • The term you’re looking for is “personal helicopter chauffeur”.

      So long as the straps are secure, it can’t be any worse than what we have now. Then again, sticking a saddle on an ICBM is better than flying Delta.

  11. Who said Delta tries to “serve its passengers” as best it can? Too many comments to look back. But come on: Delta exists to MAKE MONEY. They do not see themselves as providing a public service. They do not care how they make their money, only that they make it. I travel a great deal, and the USAir/Delta merger has only made things worse. We travel at the airlines’ whim and (limited) ability. They couldn’t care less if we’re happy or not: safe, they may care about, but only for lawsuit avoidance.

    When possible, take the train. Only drawback there is the lack of security…. tho the airlines haven’t been so lucky there either, have they?

    I don’t want to sound like a victim, but our incredibly “mobile society” has put us under the (no pun intended) wings of a totalitarian industry. If I were involved in this particular case, I would get a lawyer, get the names of bumped travelers, and file a law suit. I am not litigious, but some actions demand litigation, if only to bring attention to them.

    Think I need a car trip…

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