Delta's turn: We're sorry for threatening our customer with jail on overbooked flight

Fill in the blank: “We are sorry for the unfortunate experience our customers had with …” This time it’s Delta Airline’s turn to apologize profusely for a viral video detailing their customer-service experience. Brian and Brittany Shear had paid for a seat used by their toddler on a flight from Hawaii back to California, where they live, when a flight attendant told them they had to give it up, claiming it was overbooked. When the Shears refused to do so, the video shows someone  — it’s still unclear who — threatening them with jail and the loss of their children:

On the video, Brian Schear can be heard talking with a person off-camera — it is not clear whether that person is a Delta employee, a security officer, or somebody else.

After Schear says that he won’t leave — the airline will have to remove him — the person off-camera replies, “You and your wife will be in jail … it’s a federal offense if you don’t abide” by an airline crew’s order.

“I bought that seat,” Schear protests.

Schear then suggests that his wife could hold one of the toddlers during takeoff and then put the youngster in the car seat. Another person, who appears to be a Delta supervisor, tells him that federal rules require that children under 2 must stay in a parent’s lap throughout the flight.

Er … about that …

That is false. The Federal Aviation Administration “strongly urges” that infants be in a car seat, although it permits those under 2 to be held in a parent’s lap. On its website, Delta recommends that parents buy a seat for children under 2 and put them in an approved child-safety seat.

Oopsie! However, there may have been another reason for Delta’s initial demand to have the toddler sit in the father’s lap. The Schears originally bought the seat for their 18-year-old son, but they bought him a separate ticket on an earlier flight in order to be able to use the seat for the toddler in his car seat — as Delta and the FAA recommend. It’s unclear whether the Schears updated the passenger information:

“I bought the seat,” Brian Schear is seen telling the agents in a video of the incident, explaining that he initially purchased the seat for his 18-year-old son but sent the teen home early on another flight so that the toddler would have a seat on the plane. “It’s a red-eye. He won’t sleep unless he’s in his car seat. So, otherwise, he’d be sitting in my wife’s lap, crawling all over the place, and it’s not safe.” …

The issue, it seems, is transferring airline tickets from one passenger to another. Delta Air Lines maintains on its website that “all tickets are nontransferable per the fare rules. Name changes are not permitted.”

Note, however, that is a Delta rule, not an FAA regulation. The FAA allows transfers as long as the names get changed early enough for a TSA check on the new passenger. Regardless, that alone could have been grounds to refuse service, but that’s clearly not the objection raised in this instance. If that was the problem, they would have asked them all to deplane right from the start, and shouldn’t have allowed them on the flight in the first place. Delta wanted the seat for another passenger, despite the fact that the Schears had paid for it, and then kicked them all off the flight for refusing to give it up — even after Brian Schear finally conceded the point and agreed to fly with his son in his lap.

Like American Airlines, Delta learned its lesson from United. When this video began to go viral on Wednesday, they immediately announced an investigation into the incident, then settled up with the Schears, complete with public apologies. It doesn’t matter if an airline can justify its behavior; when grossly poor customer service gets exposed, it’s much better and far less costly to simply apologize and offer a refund-plus to the customers involved. And threatening the loss of custody for parents who just want to fly home after a vacation is a pretty good example of “grossly poor customer service,” regardless of any justification.

After this string of viral videos, two things will happen. First, customers will become a lot more emboldened to stand up to airline employees, especially in overbooking situations, and second, airlines will have to try to eliminate those opportunities as fast as possible. This is a good demonstration of the marketplace at work. We may not need Congressional action on overbooking — airlines now have a strong interest in ending the practice. Markets being what they are, though, expect prices to rise to cover those sunk costs in empty seats, and expect cancellation fees and policies to get a lot tougher, which would have happened whether Congress drove these changes or not.