Today’s Courier Herald Column:
When you grow up in Fayette County Georgia, there is one consumer brand that is ingrained into the fabric of your community to the point that it becomes a bit of who you are and where you are from. Fayette is an airport bedroom community, and Delta Airlines could truthfully be submitted on government forms as my place of birth.
As Delta grew so did the community. I recall one statistic just before 9/11 saying that 10% of the company’s world wide employees lived there. Delta employees were my family, friends, neighbors, and customers.
Delta’s economic importance cannot be overstated for the south metro Atlanta region. Fayette prospered with the growth of Delta, and hit many bumps along the way as the airline weathered the turbulent industry after 9/11 all the way into bankruptcy.
Though the company has emerged strong once again, many of those family and friends who once worked there no longer do. Others receive pay much less than they once did. Such is the life of economic survival of an airline these days.
Mergers have changed the industry as well, and Delta’s absorption of NorthWest briefly made it the nations’s largest airline. The absorption of Continental into United and the presumed takeover of American by USAir will reduce competition further. Those companies plus Southwest Airlines will account for the bulk of domestic air travel going forward.
Rising jet fuel prices and a sluggish economy have not been kind to the industry, and airlines have each experimented with ways to pull more dollars out of each travelers pocket to defray rising costs. Others have added perks for their most frequent travelers on high fare routes. Delta now transports some elite travelers to and from planes in Porsches. After all, the fares these travelers pay make a difference in whether the airlines will make a profit, and they must be coddled.
Travelers like myself who fly about once a month are at the other end of the spectrum. Falling just short of “medallion” status, I generally fly near the last minute and pay near full fare on most trips. But I also fly just infrequently enough to justify the airline’s perks. Thus, I’m usually subjected to the back of planes, fees for any baggage, and fees if my itinerary should face any changes, even on the same day.
Some others like myself who fly regularly but not enough to qualify for medallion status with Delta are still afforded the privileges of the most frequent flyers. Unlike myself, they are Georgia elected officials who directly decide laws affecting Delta’s competitive environment. Several elected officials including the Governor, Speaker, and Lt. Governor were awarded Delta premium privilege statuses after granting the company $30 Million in specially targeted tax breaks for the airline. Some special flyers are clearly more special than others.
Despite my lack of privileges, the increased use of gouging fees, and the growing impersonal nature of the flight experience, Delta has remained my “go-to” airline because of my history, and their history. They are after all, where I’m from.
For my most recent trip to D.C., I attempted to book the flight using Delta.com. After filling out the required forms and entering payment information, I was given an error message and told to start my search over. During the time it took to complete the purchase, Delta had repriced the route for my travel dates and quite literally doubled the lowest available fare.
I rebooked the fare on AirTran, saving over $250.
A few hours later, I received a promo email asking me to “come back to Delta.com”. I decided that I should let the airline know of my experience, and of their lost fare. I went back to their website and completed an online form.
One day later, I received a cold, impersonal, lecturing email informing me that the airline had the right to change fares at any time, and that I had no right to any published fare until the transaction was complete. It was, to say the least, rude.
I replied to the email that the cold and impersonal nature of the reply was why Delta would no longer be my “go-to” airline. A day later, I received a more personal reply, but still one explaining Delta had a complex fare structure and I just needed to accept that. So be it.
This weekend, I bought some tickets through Ticketmaster, arguably more of a monopoly than Delta. At each step online, there was a timer telling me how much time I had to complete that screen to hold my tickets for purchase. It seems that Delta could invest in such basic technology and adopt similar procedures rather than lecturing customers that I should just accept that they sometimes need to double fares in the middle of the purchase.
When boarding my AirTran flight in Atlanta, there was one more difference between airlines. The gate agent looked down at my boarding pass and then looked up and said “Have a nice flight Mr. Harper”. It was a small personal touch, but one I remember from retail management days that is hard to train, but essential to customer perception. It impressed me, as did the rest of their customer contact employees.
Delta is where I’m from. When possible going forward, AirTran and their new owner Southwest will be the ones to take me where I’m going.