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When Operations Go Haywire, Should Airlines Ask Passengers to Volunteer to Help?

Delta apology delta lounge middle seat passengers
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If you or someone you remotely care about was scheduled to fly on Delta over the past few days, you have my condolences.

I dodged that bullet – barely.

I was scheduled to fly into Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon, just as the first wave of operational trouble had kicked up.  Then I was headed to northwest Georgia for two days of work.  After, I’d be flying home on the last DFW-bound Delta flight on Thursday evening.

Monday brought the first run of storms and on Monday evening it started to look as if my plans would shift.  I woke up Tuesday morning to delays already posted for my afternoon flight from Dallas to Atlanta.  Before lunch I knew my trip would be rescheduled due to the anticipated weather and as my flight continued push further back, I called Delta to cancel.  Despite having no travel waiver in place, I was lucky to speak with a customer service representative who offered me a full refund.  (My status – Gold Medallion, my ticket – nonrefundable paid first class)  I got very lucky!

As it turns out, I might still be in Georgia if I had not cancelled – my Thursday night return did not operate but the cancellation did not post until almost midnight on Thursday, almost four days into the Atlanta rescheduling week.  I have no idea at that point what might have been available for rebooking.  Usually at this point, airlines ask passengers to volunteer to give up seats – those with confirmed seats can stand to make hundreds (if not thousands) in compensation for taking bumps on those now overbooked flights.

airlines ask passengers to volunteer

But this really isn’t about me.  It is about what happens when operations fail.  Yesterday BoardingArea blog The Gate was reporting that Delta still was operating in a relative state of disorder.  (Renes Points suggests that has continued into today.)  So it seems to be common knowledge among travelers and execs alike that there is trouble.

The Reaction

A few employees for Delta put out the call to customers they have good relationships with to ask if they could come help fellow distressed travelers in need.  And they did, donning a “Peach Corp” vest to give directions, hand out snacks, and offer other guidance to fellow passengers.

Some of those volunteers put out the call for other elite passengers to come help.  And that caused quite a social media firestorm in a few frequent flyer circles.  Several individuals on private message boards commented that it is quite presumptuous when airlines ask passengers to volunteer to help a for-profit corporation.  Others noted that at minimum, mileage or other compensation could be offered in exchange for soft skills.

Still, many answered the rally cry for help based on this post this morning on Delta’s employee Facebook page:

I do feel the warm fuzzy feelings for the employees – it is nice to know your customers love you.  But it is a shame when management doesn’t appear to have your back too.  It is a sticky issue.  Should airlines ask passengers to volunteer to help?  Or should they even accept that help if offered.  Or instead should they seek out and rely on appropriate staffing?

I’ve also seen airlines ask passengers to volunteer in less dire circumstances.  Also I’ve been a beta tester for two different airlines (and two different hotel programs) for apps or websites.  I’ve participated in several focus groups or customer experience panels.  Those types of volunteer experiences have been fun and hardly seem like work for me.

My Take

I think no one is better equipped to help out in a time of extreme crisis than an airline’s most frequent travelers.  I’ve watched in some of my own small frequent travel circles as we have worked privately in small groups to solve some of the toughest travel problems for our own.

I have many times taken a stray traveler under my wing during irregular operations at an airport.  For example, a young student barely old enough to not be an unaccompanied minor, a mother traveling solo with young children, and an elderly couple.  I’ve helped to rebook them when things have gone awry or navigate tight connections at the airport.

I’ve allowed casual acquaintances from Facebook travel groups to sleep in my guest room during crazy Texas weather.  (Perhaps a by-product of my own 9/11 experiences?!)  I no longer live too close to the airport but when I did, it was an alternative to an airport hotel.

We’ve seen the effect of something like Delta’s Peach Corp here in DFW with American Airlines travelers.  Several volunteer each fall raising thousands of dollars for Airpower Foundation and their Medal of Honor, Skyball, and Snowball Express events.  When I’ve talked to many of those volunteers, I often hear common themes about connectivity.  Many travelers want to build relationships with others who understand their lifestyle, particularly other travelers.  Volunteering with travelers – or to help travelers – feeds that need.

But when airlines ask passengers to volunteer they need to find a way to reward volunteers appropriately.  It can be with insider access to new features or a few token miles for time and trouble.  It can even be a structured social opportunity with other frequent elite travelers.  But there does need to be a payoff of some type.

A Personal Experience

The Atlanta storms bring to mind a past flight delay story of my own.  During one unexpected wave of spring weather in Texas, we were hit with a fast-moving line of thunderstorms on a Saturday evening.  I was flying out of Austin-Bergstrom on the last early evening flight.  The storm line stretching from Oklahoma to San Antonio closed DFW for several hours.  It forced flight diversions to other airports in the region.  As a result, almost a dozen diverted American Airlines planes landed at Austin-Bergstrom.  After sitting on the ground for an extended period, some flights had to be cancelled while others were deplaned for comfort.  This dumped hundreds of passengers into a near empty terminal on a Saturday evening.  The last flights should have already boarded so most agents had gone home for the night.  With few agents to rebook the flood of passengers from the deplaning flights, it was chaos.

Thinking quickly I wrote the toll-free rebooking phone number dozens of times onto slips of paper I tore off of a legal pad in my bag.  Then I walked through the long line that was snaking through the terminal and started handing them out.  I patiently explained to the passengers why they should call that line now and try to rebook rather than waiting for the agent.  Many thought I was trying to trick them into giving up their spot in line.  I had to convince them I knew how to help them.  I explained they would be more successful at finding an earlier flight on the phone than in the airport.

Slowly other frequent travelers saw what I was doing and joined my efforts.  Soon others joined and were helping to call hotels and secure rooms at nearby hotels.  It was a beautiful team effort  One of us stopped midway through to go get coffee for the weary gate agents.  On that night of storms, we were all in it together.  Eventually some of the flights took off for DFW.  Others that were cancelled had already been rebooked for the next day.  Some had been put into rental cars to head to connecting cities that were closer to Austin to begin with.  It felt good to get home that night and knew others had as well.

This wasn’t a case where airlines ask passengers to volunteer.  It was simply passengers knowing how to best help other passengers.

Your Thoughts

Have you volunteered to help an airline or other travel company – either formally or informally?  Was it during irregular operations or for a special project?  Were you rewarded for your effort?  Would you do it again?


  1. It bears repeating that this wasn’t an act of nature or terrorist attack or some unforeseeable catastrophe. This meltdown is a direct consequence of Delta’s refusal to invest the time and money into updating their IT system…despite YEARS of record profits! It isn’t even like this IT meltdown was unprecedented as it has happened before and their IT was never really ever NOT broken. Delta management really has some chutzpah to ask customers to help clean up their mess. What next, having them volunteer to sorta luggage? Cleaning up planes that are sitting at ATL over night? De-icing in winter?

  2. Would Delta or any other airline volutarily help you out with a flight change or refund request if somethin in YOUR life went haywire? No. Not a chance in hell.

    “‘Hello Delta. My car broke down and my kid has a103 degree temperature. I just can’t leave on 8:05 tomorrow to Milwaukee. Can you help me out by refunding my ticket?”….(silence)…….Hello, Delta……..(silence)…….Hello?……..

    1. +1. Delta couldn’t care less about anything but the stockholders. I’m a bit surprised that they managed to get the very customers that have been getting burned by all of the Enhancements over the last few years to help, but I suppose that’s just southern hospitality.

  3. All I can say is WOW to those who did not get to experience the two days of joy in ATL. After my DCA flight diverted to CAE for 7.5 hours I had the pleasure of finally leaving ATL at 8pm the following night. I would estimate that 80-90% of those in the airport do not fly often or at all. Do they need a comforting voice or help? Yes. Can a volunteer help them at this moment of crises for them? Absolutely! I was helping passengers as much as possible because I have been in their position. After volunteering for 20 years as a fire fighter I know crisis and what people are going through. To think any corporation can be ready for what took place is ludicrous at best. Delta only has so many employees that they can bring in to help.
    Does Delta IT need a complete make over? 100% and this should show them why. Will it take a couple of years to build a new system and migrate the data, yes. I am with you on the IT side completely.
    Learn crisis management from the customer and corporation side and you will understand why at times the customers can help others the most.

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