Torpy at Large: Ann Coulter makes us feel sympathy … for Delta

In the ongoing feud between Our Hometown Airline and The Blustering Blonde, one must remember that corporations are people, too.

Both Mitt Romney and the U.S. Supreme Court have afforded corporations human virtues, and now Delta Air Lines has shown that it can get its feelings hurt.

Ann Coulter, who has made a comfortable living as a catty sourpuss, started tweeting her annoyance with Delta and its employees after getting moved from a seat she had pre-booked. The airline decided to publicly fire back.

Fighting a customer is unusual for corporations. But Delta (if accorded another human aspect) has long been a bit of a bully boy, so going tit for tat might not be all that surprising. Besides, it's not like Delta is picking on your Aunt Helen. Coulter has 1.6 million Twitter followers and is a phone call away to getting quick airtime on Fox News.

Nonetheless, the tussle has put the flying public in a quandary. Normally, most people will pick sides against the airlines. It’s just a human default mode. Dislike for airlines is almost visceral with them dragging, stranding and bumping passengers willy-nilly.

The episode has become one of those cultural crossroads moments where politics, travel, social media and customer service all intersect. In this case Coulter has done the impossible. The woman single-handedly has made Delta — which for years has strong-armed vendors, partners, the city and even its customers on the way to making billions in profits — look sympathetic.

Basically, Coulter’s “plight” was a non-story. She booked an aisle seat on a row with a little added legroom, paid $30 extra, but was moved at the last minute to a window seat. Upon boarding, she sat in the seat she had originally booked because it was empty. But a flight attendant soon asked her to move and give another passenger, a young woman, that seat.

Delta, in classic airline fashion, didn’t tell the TV pundit why she was moved. And she didn’t push back much. These days, in the obey-or-else environment of the Transportation Security Administration, passengers are afraid to pipe up too loudly for fear of being jettisoned.

So, after arriving at her destination, Coulter went after the company like it was a Pelosi-loving, welfare-mooching socialist snowflake.

She called Delta “the worst airline in America,” compared its employees to minders of a gulag, described the passenger in her seat as a “dachshund-legged woman” and even disparaged the airline’s Wi-Fi.

Delta, in a statement, said it was “disappointed that the customer has chosen to publicly attack our employees and other customers by posting derogatory and slanderous comments and photos in social media.”

And in a deliciously passive-aggressive dig, the airline said it would refund Coulter her $30.

I called around to some people who have traditionally beaten up the airlines for treating passengers like cattle. They restated their everlasting annoyance with the industry but, to a person, noted that Coulter comes off looking like the loser here.

Kate Hanni, who started a passengers’ rights movement after getting stuck on a tarmac in an American Airlines jet for nine hours in 2006, said the matter of airlines arbitrarily moving passengers around in cramped jets is a real issue. But, she added, “it’s unfortunate that it’s Ann Coulter (as the face of that issue) because she’s such a hostile human being.”

“I think she’s making a mountain out of a molehill,” she said. “What I find horrifying was that she took a photograph of a nice young lady” and put it up on Twitter for her army of followers to see.

“She’s trying to get sympathy,” Hanni said. “But she wasn’t a small child, she wasn’t elderly, she wasn’t beaten or dragged off the plane.”

Roland Rust, the executive director of the Center for Excellence in Service at the University of Maryland, is a frequent flier with horror stories. For instance, last summer on an overseas flight to Oslo, Norway, Rust said he and his wife endured a flight delay that cost them a day, got no hotel assistance or advice, met with disinterested employees, found themselves on long phone delays, had their luggage lost, and discovered that their return flights were canceled.

Ironically, Rust was attending a service conference.

The culprit — that time — was United, not Delta, but he said that airlines have become “efficiency-oriented operations companies, not customer service companies. They’re oligopolies. They have tremendous power. All these consolidations are bad for customers. They don’t treat you well. And they charge you more money.”

He added, “I’m 99.9 percent of the time on the side of the customer …”

Well, you get where this is going as to Ms. Coulter.

“She comes across like an entitled, spoiled showbiz type,” Rust said.

Joe Brancatelli, the former editor of Frequent Flyer magazine and now a travel consultant, said “there is something rotten in the airlines” and that social media has been a boon toward transparency.

“Social media has exposed the airlines for what they are; they have shown the airlines treat people like crap.”

But Coulter, said Brancatelli, was barely inconvenienced “and people know it.”

Still, by firing back, Delta “feeds the Breitbarts of the world,” he said, referring to the far-right website that makes Fox seem like bed-wetters.

“This is a case of dumb and dumber tearing up each other,” he said. “At the moment the loser is Ann Coulter because she said the last dumb thing.”

Maybe, the next time something happens, a more sympathetic star will pick a fight with the airlines. Or a dachshund-legged lady will snap at Coulter.