Do Airlines Need a CLO – Chief Lying Officer?

My wife, two kids and I had a trip planned to Florida to spend a week with her family on the beach. Originally we were going to drive, but at the last minute decided that was a bad idea and bought plane tickets on Delta. My parents graciously drove us to the airport in Kansas City. We checked our luggage and paid the $50 to take the pack and play and our suitcase. The fee was expected, but it still amazes me how much airlines can get by with. Oh well, at least Delta doesn’t charge for using the restrooms like some airlines are trying. We went through security, found we had drastically over-estimated how long that would take, and settled in to wait for a few hours watching the planes with our kids.

The gate next to ours was supposed to be heading to Chattanooga and every 15 minutes they would announce that the plane was still being repaired and that the flight had been delayed yet again. When we boarded our flight, the plane to Chattanooga still hadn’t pulled up to their gate. We got our luggage stowed and the kids settled in. Katy our 4 year old had the window seat and Benjamin our 22 month old was sitting on my wife’s lap in the middle seat. Even after spending two hours watching the planes from the airport, they were still fascinated with the ground crew as they prepped the other planes.

This would be the first leg of our flight which would put us in Memphis. An hour later our second plane would take us to Panama City Beach.  Traveling with kids sure is a lot more work. We had carefully planned what time we put them to bed the night before in order to make sure the youngest would be tired enough to take a nap on the drive up to Kansas City so he’d still be relatively happy when we made it to Florida and took a taxi to the condo around 9pm–about 2.5 hours after he normally goes to sleep. So far everything was going according to plan.

Everyone was seated and the crew was getting ready to close the door when there seemed to be a bit of confusion.The stewardess went to talk to the pilot and after a few minutes the pilot came on the PA system.

“Dispatch just called me and said that this plane isn’t going to Memphis. I tried to get them to let us take it, but we are going to have to get off.”

That seemed a little odd. It also seemed like we weren’t getting the whole truth. But with all the airline security issues, I figured it was best to just get off quickly and orderly and then just get on whatever plane we were supposed to be on.  As we got off the plane, they changed the sign to say Chattanooga and loaded up all the passengers who had been waiting for the broken plane. “Good for them,” I thought. Although I did wonder how they could have been delayed for hours when their correct plane was sitting right there and no one noticed. Since we had an hour layover, I figured a 15 to 20 minute delay to board our plane wouldn’t make too much of a difference.

I asked a stewardess what had happened, and was told that we had been boarded on the “wrong plane”. This seemed pretty odd because it would have required a huge number of errors from a very large number of people. They would have had to pull the plane to the wrong gate in the first place. The pilots would have needed to overlook the fact that it wasn’t the plane they were supposed to fly. The technicians would have had to  overlook that it wasn’t the right plane. The plane would have had to be the exact same type or the seat numbers wouldn’t have matched up, etc. The chances that an airline could make that many mistakes without having serious safety issues elsewhere is pretty much impossible.

The more I thought about her explanation the more nervous about the safety of flying Delta at all. We were supposed to get on the “right plane” in a few minutes with an airline that had just told me they couldn’t keep track of which plane went where.  What if someone got confused again and only put half the amount of fuel on the plane thinking it was headed somewhere else. What if they accidentally got the water truck and the fuel truck confused and the bathroom sink was now dispensing jet fuel?   What if they took off and then realized that the “pilot” was actually a bagage attendant who and momentarily forgotten his job and thought he was the pilot?

I wasn’t sure if I felt very safe putting my family on this next plane that they were getting ready to direct us to.  That should happen any minute right? Well no. Somehow our plane was now broken and the mechanics didn’t know if or when they could fix it, but instead of leaving at 3:45, the soonest we’d be leaving was 7 and that was looking unlikely. The new time strangely matched the time the people waiting on the broken plane for Chattanooga had been last told. Then I realized what had happened. Some computer had shown the airline that it was going was cheaper to bump and re-route everyone on our flight than to try to re-route the people on the Chattanooga flight. That way the airline wouldn’t have to put all of them up in a hotel. That made me feel a bit better about the safety of the airline, but not so good about our chances of making it to Florida on time.

Evidently the computer had said that our flight was one where they could put the fewest people in a hotel because almost everyone could reach their destination through other flights that afternoon. There was one destination that they couldn’t reach–Panama City Beach where we were going. In all fairness the people who helped arrange a hotel for us were courteous and friendly.  They gave us our tickets for the next day along with vouchers for the hotel and a few meals. I carefully checked the tickets to make sure we were all sitting together and discovered there were no seat numbers. I was told the seats would be assigned the next day.

After an uneventful (but not particularly restful) night in the hotel, we checked in our luggage and got our seat assignments. Unfortunately the person making the seat assignments decided that the best place for us to sit was in the very back–where the engine completely covers the windows and the kids can’t see out at all.  Maybe I didn’t adequately explain that yes we all needed to sit together and yes the ability to see out was somewhat important–something I had put a lot of effort into earlier when selecting our flights.

We finally did make it to the beach a day late. It was a nice week spent talking with family, watching dolphins, playing in the waves, making sand castles and swimming in the pool.

So back to the “wrong plane” thing.  Either the airline told us the truth and they had accidentally put us all on the wrong plane or they lied and it was just cheaper to have us get off and put other people on that plane. I am almost certain that it was option 2 because if they did make all the mistakes that would have been necessary to put everyone on the wrong plane, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t admit it. Mistakes of that magnitude would require a huge number of people to do the wrong thing at a scale that would mean the airline would probably have planes running out of gas in mid-air and bumping into the terminal.

So assuming that we were on the “right plane” until they decided they wanted to use it for something else, why would they make up a lie that made them look horribly inept? Imagine this exchange between a police officer and a thief who stole money from a vending machine:

Police: So did you steal money from that soda machine last night?
Suspect: No.
Police: What were you doing last night from 8 to 10 pm?
Suspect: I was murdering someone.

In this case:

Me: Did you make a business decision that will make us miss a day of vacation?
Delta: No.
Me: Then why is the plane I was on headed somewhere else.
Delta: We have no idea where are planes are or where they go. Our employees don’t even check to see if a plane is the right one or if it is at the right gate.
Me: Are you sure it wasn’t just to get the most people to their destination?
Delta: Yes. It definitely was caused by a general state of confusion about what plane goes where.

Assuming it was a business decision, I can understand what Delta did. Now I think they should have made the decision before we all got on the plane, but it is understandable even if I don’t like how it change my family’s plans. But I can’t at all imagine why they would lie about it–particularly with something that makes them look far worse.

I propose that Delta needs a CLO–chief lying officer who can oversee that any lies being told don’t make the company look worse than the truth. The first thing this person would be tasked with is creating a lying handbook or maybe some type of online employee portal where you can select what the situation is, and it will give you a list of lies to tell that don’t make the airline look worse than the truth and a list of lies that you aren’t allowed to use.

For example if a plane is grounded because of maintenance, unacceptable lies would be:

  • The FAA has grounded all of our flights because our planes are held together with rubber cement and twisty ties.
  • Three of our pilot’s pet rattlesnakes got loose and we haven’t been able to find them. We think they escaped on this plane, but it could have been any of our planes.
  • The plane is infested with bloodsucking cockroaches and will need be radiated for 5 months before anyone can enter it.
Acceptable lies to choose from would include:
  • There is bad weather between here and your destination…. No it won’t show up on the weather map on your smart phone….It is special weather that doesn’t show up on a smart phone…. next.
  • Someone (dirty look at a random bystander) tampered with the smoke detector in the lavatory and we will need to fix it.
  • The toilets are frozen and FAA regulations prevent us from flying with frozen toilets….I know it is 108 degrees out, but it is really cold at 20,000 feet and they freeze in the air.
Or maybe, just maybe it would be easier to tell people the truth.

Note: If someone from Delta wants to set me straight and say that the flight going from KC to Memphis on August 13th was somehow pulled up to the wrong gate, prepped without anyone noticing it, boarded by the pilots and crew without anyone noticing that they weren’t on the correct plane until right before they closed the door, I’d be happy to update and clarify that I was wrong and we were told the truth.


  1. PJ says

    Loved the story. Reminded me of a Delta flight many years ago at BWI which was advertised as a $49 flight to NYC (LGA). I would ordinarily take the train, but thought at $49, the risk of delays, etc. on Delta might be worth it. Bear in mind, this was pre-911 days, when it was commonplace for all of the airlines (except Virgin and a few rare exceptions) routinely lied and said that planes were delayed “20 minutes”, regardless of how long the delay was really expected to take.

    I made my way on a Thursday after working in Baltimore to Delta at BWI. It was raining. At the gate, there was a sign overhead that said the flight was delayed 20 minutes. “20 miuntes” the standard airline lie, which was too short a period to make it worthwhile to go back to the ticket counter and re-book, or, heaven forbid, book on an alternate carrier. I was experienced at dealing with this deceitful form of crowd control and spoke to the gate agent.

    “Gee, I have not eaten anything since lunch, and I was thinking I could go and get a hamburger if I knew the delay was longer than 20 minutes. But, if the flight does prepare to leave in 20 minutes, I would miss it while having a burger. What do you think I should do?” I asked the Delta gate agent.

    “Well, the aircraft has not yet left New York for Baltimore, so you should have at least an hour to eat a burger” said the Delta gate agent as she eyed the 100 or so passengers in the gate area, careful to be sure no other passengers had heard her.

    “That’s good to know,” I said, “I think I will just go to the BWI train station and take Amtrak” I replied.

    “You lied to me!” exclaimed the dishonest Delta gate agent. (register ironic quirk here)

    And so you have it. When the airlines lie to us, it is an acceptable form of crowd control to keep the rabble in check. When we catch them at their dubious game, we are the reprehensible passenger, the one who should check and lose all of our possessions so the the flying waiters and waitresses can stuff the overheads with their precious cargo.

    Go figure!

  2. says

    This reminded me of a time when I would have preferred either more or less information from the airline.

    After all the passengers had boarded the plane, we were told that we had to get off so the mechanics could check something. A short time later the gate agent announced that the mechanics had decided that it was “good enough” to fly and we could board again. We all looked at each other wondering what “good enough” meant!

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