Thursday, July 31, 2008

Memo to Delta Air Lines

To: Delta Air Lines

From: Thomas

Re: Get your shit together

I recently returned from another in a series of business-related trips to Dubai. As I have done for most of my trips there this summer, I flew from Houston to Dubai via Atlanta on Delta Air Lines. My experience with Delta, while not exactly horrible, was not particularly pleasant this time around. You guys really need to get your shit together.

Let me start by saying that I understand that this is currently a very rough time for virtually any major US airline, Delta included. The economy is sluggish, gas prices are spiraling out of control, airlines are hemorrhaging money and several have already called it quits this year alone. And I also understand that I am probably old-fashioned in my belief that customer service should still count for something in today's commercial aviation industry. But the pressures facing the aviation industry shouldn't be used as an excuse for an airline that is poorly-run and indifferent to the comfort and experience of its customers.

I began my most recent trip in early July at Bush Intercontinental Airport here in Houston, where I was greeted at the Delta ticket counter by a long, slow line. I am a fairly frequent traveler and I am accustomed to relatively quick lines at ticket counters, manned by agents that are helpful and efficient. The Delta ticket agents at the counter on this day, however, were neither. They were so slow in doing their job that I began to wonder if I was even going to make my flight, and they were not particularly good at their jobs, either.

Case in point: because I am a Continental OnePass frequent flyer, and because Continental and Delta are both members of SkyTeam, I am entitled to frequent flyer miles whenever I travel on Delta. Normally it's not a big deal: I give my OnePass card to the ticket agent, explain that I am eligible for miles on this flight, the agent adds my OnePass account number to the ticket and I earn the miles.

But not this time: the ticket agent claimed that he couldn't put my frequent flier account into the system because the name on my frequent flyer card did not match the name on my reservation. This is complete bullshit because previous agents were able to give me frequent flyer credit on previous flights even though my names "didn't match" (the difference being that my middle name is not spelled out on my OnePass card). More likely, this ticket agent, who seemed to struggle just to check me in and take my bags, simply didn't know how to add my frequent flier information into the system. Instead, he gave me the number to Delta's SkyMiles customer service center and told me to call them. (When I called them, however, they told me that I'd need to call Continental's OnePass customer service center, and when I called OnePass, they told me that I need to send them a flight credit request in the mail. Why do I think that I'm about to get screwed out of about 8,000 frequent flyer miles simply because one of Delta's ticket agents at IAH doesn't know what they're doing?)

After waiting through the TSA security line to get to my gate, I had to wait in another long, slow line at the gate to pick up my boarding passes for the Houston-Atlanta and Atlanta-Dubai legs of my trip. This is because I was not given the actual boarding passes at the ticket counter, but rather some sort of voucher that I had to trade in for boarding passes at the gate itself. It didn't make any sense, but I've come to discover that it has something do do with Delta's cheesy practice of beginning Flight 8 to Dubai in Houston (which, by the way, keeps me from choosing my seats on Delta's website, because I fly on multiple aircraft). The line was so slow that they began boarding the aircraft before I even got my passes!

The flight from Houston to Atlanta was fine if I ignore the fact that I got to sit in the very back of the aircraft, right next to one of the MD-88's loud-ass engines that completely blocked the view out of my window. And the layover in Atlanta was fine if I ignore the fact that the first leg of Flight 8 arrived at Terminal A and the second leg of Flight 8 departed from Terminal E. But the flight to Dubai on the Boeing 777 departed on time, I managed to luck out and end up with a front-section seat with lot of legroom, and everything seemed fine until I tried to turn on my in-flight entertainment screen.

Nothing. No music, no movies, no flight tracker. Just a dark screen. It didn't even appear to be connected. And as it turned out, my screen wasn't the only one not working. The flight attendants simply shrugged; there was nothing they could do.

The end result was that I arrived in Dubai 14 hours later with a bad taste in my mouth. "Delta really needs to get its shit together," I thought.

My experience on the flight back a few weeks later started out fine enough. The ticket agents at DXB were quick and efficient (and, I might add, were able to add my frequent flyer information to my ticket without any problem), the time spent waiting at the gate was short, there were no hassles boarding the plane and it appeared that we were ready for an on-time departure back to Atlanta.

But we didn't go anywhere. We sat, instead, at the gate, for AN HOUR AND A HALF while a dispute regarding the aircraft's load and takeoff requirements were being resolved.

The explanation we were given went something like this: the flight dispatcher back in Atlanta felt that the Boeing 777 was loaded to the point that, given the length of the runway at DXB, it needed to fly into a headwind in order to generate sufficient lift to clear the runway. That evening the wind was blowing off the Gulf, from west-to-east, meaning that the airplane needed to take off from east-to-west in order to take advantage of the headwind. Problem was, that's not the direction that the runway was operating that evening, and Dubai's civil aviation authorities weren't about to change the airport's operating patterns just for the benefit of one airline.

Finally, it was decided that a cargo pallet would be offloaded in order to make the plane light enough to take off with the tailwind. This was done and, at long last, we were finally on our way. And, to be sure, the aircraft did manage to use almost all of the runway even without that cargo pallet; I was almost worried that the landing gear was going to hit the tops of the trucks driving along Emirates Road as we rotated off the ground and flew into the night sky.

Let me say that I'm obviously glad that the plane was able to take off safely. But there are a few things that nevertheless bother me. Firstly, the concept that your airline's altimetric margins are so narrow that the offloading of a single cargo pallet is potentially the difference between an airplane being able safely clear a runway or not is, in itself, disconcerting. Secondly, it's not a situation that should arise to begin with: Delta knows what the length and standard operation of the runway at Dubai is, Delta knows what the maximum take-off weight for their aircraft is, and there should be meteorological staff either in Atlanta or Dubai who can predict, in advance of the plane being loaded, which way the wind will be blowing that evening. And finally, why did it take so long to reach the decision to remove a cargo pallet in any case? If an aircraft is deemed too heavy to safely perform, offloading some cargo would seem to be the most obvious solution and it shouldn't take an hour and a half to make that decision.

Aside from the fact that everybody on that flight had to spend that much more time sitting in their seat for a flight that is long enough to begin with, the end result was that we got into Atlanta an hour-and-a-half late and a lot of passengers, myself included, missed their connecting flights. This kind of delay is the hallmark of an airline that really needs to get its shit together.

This time my in-flight entertainment system did work, if only just barely. Every time I tried to watch a movie my system would crash and reboot. The guy sitting in the seat next to me had the same problem; he asked a flight attendant about it but all she could do is shrug. At least I could use the in-flight entertainment system to listen to music (which brings up an annoying quirk about Delta's in-flight entertainment software: why is it that, whenever you listen to a CD, you have to press the forward button to hear the next song? Why can't the system play an entire CD all the way through like, say, every other a CD player in existence?) and watch my flight's progress on the flight tracker.

But even the flight tracking software had a glitch in it: somewhere over Greenland, the "time remaining until arrival" clock stopped counting down and started counting back up! What was a six-hour remaining flight time became seven hours, and then eight hours, even as we got closer to Atlanta. It was like the airplane was caught in some weird Twilight Zone episode, and it began to concern me - was the plane slowing down in order to conserve fuel or something? - until I finally came to conclusion that the flight tracking software was simply malfunctioning.

Seriously, Delta: if you are going to spend all this money to put sophisticated in-flight entertainment systems, with screens on the back of every seat in your aircraft, then shouldn't you at least take the time to maintain them properly?

To Delta's credit, the ticket agent at the counter outside of customs who re-booked me was very kind and competent and even put me on the next flight to Hobby Airport, because the wait time was shorter than the next flight to Intercontinental. And the flight back to Houston (which was actually operated by a regional partner) was fine.

But all in all, my most recent experience with Delta Air Lines was lousy. I wasn't treated rudely or with hostility, but I was treated like Delta didn't really give a shit about me.

Like I said, the current economic situation for the domestic airline industry sucks ass, and costs have to be cut somewhere. So maybe you have to furlough your more experienced (and more expensive) ticket agents for cheaper, less-experienced ones, and that's why my experience at the ticket counter at IAH was so poor. And maybe belt-tightening is causing you to defer non-essential maintenance, and that's why my in-flight entertainment consoles didn't work. And maybe you need to load your planes to the fullest order to squeeze as much revenue as you can out of every flight, and that's why I had to sit on the tarmac in Dubai for almost two hours because sometimes those planes become too fully-loaded. And maybe, with the merger with Northwest Airlines only a few months away, the entire airline is in a holding pattern, so to speak, simply biding its time until the merger actually occurs and things actually start happening.

But in your relentless drive to maximize revenues, are you really doing right by your customers (aka, the folks who are keeping you in business)? Do you really think that charging $50 for a second checked bag, or tweaking your frequent flyer program to make it more difficult for rewards to be redeemed, is going to pay dividends in the long-term? Or is it just going to make your customers angry and make them want to fly on other carriers?

And if this is the way Delta Air Lines is being run right now, what's it going to be like a few months from now, when the merger with Northwest begins and chaos inevitably ensues as corporate cultures clash and duplicate services are cut?

Instead of using the current economic situation as an excuse to suck, Delta should be taking this opportunity to focus on customer service, to encourage people to keep flying, and to build its brand with an eye towards the merger. The best way to do that is to GET. YOUR. SHIT. TOGETHER.

Make sure your ticketing agents know what they are doing. If you must operate a single flight on multiple airplanes, don't make it a hassle for the passengers flying it. Make sure your in-flight entertainment consoles work so your customers will have something to do on 15-hour flights. Don't let your planes sit on the tarmac for hours simply because you can't get loading calculations right. Smile. Treat your customers like real people with real needs, not as mere revenue units. Demonstrate to them how bad-ass you think your new, merged airline is going to be in a year or two.

I freely admit that Delta is not my first choice when I fly to Dubai. I prefer the Emirates nonstop because it is, after all, nonstop. But up until now Delta had been my second choice. Now, I'm not so certain.

And finally, Delta: when you made your most recent in-flight video, did you have to choose to feature your scariest-looking flight attendant in it? I can't tell if she just had bad plastic surgery or if she really is possessed by demons, but I can't even watch this video without her giving me the creeps:

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