Navigating Less Than Friendly Skies

April 24, 2012 13:00 pm

by Charlie · 32 comments

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.

The Last Democrat in Georgia April 24, 2012 at 1:48 pm

“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.”

OUCH!

Max Power April 24, 2012 at 2:04 pm

I’ve got sad news for you comparing flying air tran to flying Southwest is like comparing riding Amtrak to riding MARTA. I’ve been through one Southwest cattle car style boarding, and that was enough.

Charlie April 24, 2012 at 2:13 pm

I’ve yet to experience Southwest, and I expect Delta realizes they don’t have much to worry as many/most business travelers will continue to put up with their BS rather than go for all coach, non-assigned seating.

I’d still rather be able to not pay bag fees, and change a flight same day without paying them for the privilege of flying standby. And, more importantly, to not be treated rudely at every turn because I essentially have no choice but to put up with it.

For that, I’ll occasionally sit in the middle row of a 737. It honestly can’t be much worse than sitting in the back of a RJ or MD-88 that’s 30 years old.

The Last Democrat in Georgia April 24, 2012 at 2:52 pm

I don’t know, Charlie, Delta seems to have been worried enough to have repeatedly made moves to help block Southwest’s entry into the Atlanta market over the last couple of decades or so.

From what I understand, Delta played a big role in helping to rebuff Southwest’s last major (failed) attempt to establish a presence at the Atlanta Airport back in the late 1980’s and had been very active in attempting to block Southwest’s recent attempts at buying smaller airlines securing gates here until Southwest revealed that they were buying AirTran in 2010 showing that some of Southwest’s seeming moves to enter into the Atlanta market by attempting to purchase a smaller airline or secure just a few gates were nothing more than diversionary moves meant to distract Delta from the actual bigger moves that they really making to enter the Atlanta market.

It appears that Southwest entering the Atlanta market might have been not just a worry, but quite possibly one of Delta’s worst nightmares for about the last 25 years.

bgsmallz April 24, 2012 at 3:30 pm

I signed up for a Delta Amex card in December because I wanted the bonus points they were offering me for signing up and was planning a trip…I went online to book the award travel and the price for the travel was more than advertised. I called to find out the problem…apparently, b/c I was buying two tickets it would be 35K a piece instead of 25K a piece. Literally, they were charging me more because of the demand I was creating. The solution, so I was told, was that I needed to book each ticket one at a time in order to get the 25K price on the first one and the 35K price on the second. Seriously…that was the advice. You just spent 50K bonus miles trying to buy my loyalty and the first opportunity you get to prove its worth it…you give me a lecture about how the airlines work and instruct me on how to game your own website?

I used the miles and canceled the card.

The Last Democrat in Georgia April 24, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Charlie, I’m sure that you can remember the days when Delta and the long-departed Eastern Airlines were the big two airlines in town.

I had friends whose parents used to work for Delta and I also had friends whose parents used to work for Eastern.

Those friends can recall dividing into cliques and getting into fights on the playground growing up based upon which of the then-big two airlines their parents used to work for.

Charlie April 24, 2012 at 2:10 pm

An Eastern shout out didn’t make it in today as I was already over word count. But you just described most of middle school when Eastern was in one of its many, now famous, labor disputes. The Eastern kids wouldn’t talk to the Delta Kids -which wasn’t that unusual, but the labor issues got so bad that the Eastern pilots’ kids wouldn’t talk to the machinists’ kids. Made for interesting times.

View from Brookhaven April 24, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Southwest seems to be FUBARing the Airtran integration thus far.

I think thatas more time passes we’ll see that Southwest’s arrival in to ATL wasn’t a good thing for GA.

Doug Deal April 24, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I have never known a time that Delta was anything but a rude cattle car carrier. AirTrain, Value Jet, SouthWest and even NorthWest were always so much more friendly to me over the years.

Of course due to the ridiculous protracted hysterical over-reaction to 9/11, I have gotten to the point that I would not get onto an airplane even if they were paying me. One day they will make amphibious busses and then I can once again go overseas.

Calypso April 24, 2012 at 3:32 pm

“One day they will make amphibious busses and then I can once again go overseas.”

Pack your bags, Doug, that day has finally arrived. We call them Ships!

Doug Deal April 24, 2012 at 6:46 pm

Ships can’t drive on land, so there you go.

Sadly, there aren’t ocean rated. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duck_tour

The Last Democrat in Georgia April 24, 2012 at 7:03 pm

“Ships can’t drive on land, so there you go.”

They can if you’re under the effects of powerful halucinogenic drugs.

Do you think that the Wright Brothers came up with the concept of the airplane with the use of just science alone?

Doug Deal April 24, 2012 at 7:07 pm

+1

itsdannyg April 24, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Southwest is definitely bad for Atlanta. Think the analysis here of AirTran is spot on — but Southwest is a problem. I predict much less airline competition in coming years for Atlanta.

Reason?

1) Delta Executive on Southwest:
Southwest has been “less aggressive” in discounting than AirTran was
http://www.ajc.com/business/delta-wants-to-sell-1260265.html

2) Southwest is already cutting markets:
http://travel.usatoday.com/flights/story/2012-02-29/Many-cities-lose-out-in-Southwest-AirTran-merger/53307050/1

3) Southwest will eventually “dismantle the hub”
http://www.ajc.com/business/southwest-shifting-some-atlanta-1406021.html

Sucks.. would rather have AirTran. Delta will only strengthen their grip in Atlanta with Southwest here.

The Last Democrat in Georgia April 24, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Simple economics. All of the mergers in the airline industry over the last half-decade or so equals much less competition and much less competition means much less reason for an airline like Southwest to be as aggressive in discounting as AirTran was.

NoTeabagging April 24, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Your story gave me a flashback to a US Airways experience on a multi-flight trip. It seems all the CSR’s and attendants were dutifully trained to say, “Would you like to pay with points?” when making a reservation, inquiring about upgrades, baggage fees, etc. Unfortunately management didn’t send out a memo training employees on the points = $ structure, so they just gave me a blank stare, or silence on the phone, when I asked how many points such and such cost. It was just a nuisance to get people to sign up for these annoying rewards programs.
Delta does the same thing with their gate announcements, “if you are a Sky club, medallion club, platinum fricking whatever member please use the exclusive boarding lane.” This basically informs the low end flyers that they are last in line to board (and not worthy of their attention, unless you’d like us to sign you up for one of these programs).

Yes, airlines have joined the ranks of telephone, utility, insurance, internet and TV service vendors who seemingly conspire together to make a living hell of their valued customers with equally rude and poor customer service.

speareid April 24, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Daddy was from Charlotte. Momma was from Florence. When they got married, they had a discussion about which type of business Daddy should work for considering they were starting a new family. They decided — this was 1958 — that transportation was going to be really big and that Delta Air Lines would be a leader in the industry.

So, they loaded up the truck and they moved… to Atlanta. Dad got a job with Delta in Reservations and worked in that department for 35 years. I remember as a child how Dad would talk about “the Delta Family” with great pride and an unshakable sense of belonging. The Delta widget was an icon of prosperity that helped to counteract the less than complimentary pre-conceptions the rest of the nation harbored about us Southerners. Flying Delta was fun. We almost always left the aircraft with some memento like plastic wings or a deck of cards.

I went to Dad’s retirement party in the mid-1990’s. I remember overhearing some of the folks there talking about Dad’s 35 year career. “We won’t see many more of those,” they said. Everything tends to change over time. It’s true with families, too. It’s just sad to note that an institution once so dedicated to its family of workers and to providing the best service in the air has been unable to find a way to do that in today’s world.

Charlie April 24, 2012 at 8:20 pm

Welcome to Peach Pundit.

Be careful, as there’s no telling where your travels take you from here.

saltycracker April 24, 2012 at 3:12 pm

As a Delta multi-million miler & permanent medallion member we all must accept that times have changed. You don’t need to dress up to fly anymore nor be loyal just to be loyal. If you are loyal because of a frequent flyer program, you are mathematically challenged, it has changed too. No program is consistently better than a 2% or more cash back, no limit, credit card.

Flying is a commodity, you don’t start with a carrier or nostalgia. It is all about price, time/route & comfort/service. The best prices are direct, on-line, airlines will tell you that & to go to their web site. Group deals are no longer price advantaged, they’ll tell you that too. All the rest you can puzzle out with your personal set of values and time you have available to sort it out.

And yes, I’ve had prices change on me as well as needed frequent flyer points almost doubling as I was booking. Some travelers on expense accounts will still work to pick flights they might get bought off of, pick routes/stops to run up points & move around in motels. And complain.

Joshua Morris April 24, 2012 at 3:16 pm

I too remember folks in our neighborhood who worked for Delta and Eastern when I was growing up, and I had friends in high school who cleaned Delta planes between flights for summer work. Mom worked for a dentist in the Pointe South area whose clientele included an overwhelming majority of Delta employees from Peachtree City. Now, many of those folks’ houses are empty foreclosures or have been resold to people who work in one of the ‘high tech’ facilities in the area. Times have certainly changed in that part of the world. Maybe those neighborhoods will be Southwest employee communities before long.

peachstealth April 24, 2012 at 9:54 pm

I live about half way between Atlanta and Jacksonville. It’s almost always cheaper for me to drive to JAX, fly to ATL and then to my destination than to drive directly to ATL and get on the same plane.
I do not understand airline ticket pricing.

ryanhawk April 24, 2012 at 10:22 pm

I dumped Delta a very long time ago. Welcome to the anyone but Delta club.

debbie0040 April 25, 2012 at 6:18 am

I switched to AirTran from Delta once I noticed the big difference in the customer service between the two airlines. AirTran treats customers the way Delta used to years ago – they show appreciation that you chose AirTran to take you to your destination. Delta treats coach customers like they are cattle on a cattle truck..

I have co-workers that have flown with SouthWest and they had nothing but good to say about them.

Delta must be trying to squash the proposed Briscoe Field expansion/privatiation. I attended the Gwinnett Board of Commissioner meeting last night and a representative from Delta was there. Hear from supporters of the privatization that Delta opposes the expansion..

The Last Democrat in Georgia April 25, 2012 at 1:19 pm

“Delta treats coach customers like they are cattle on a cattle truck..”

You got the cattle truck treatment on Delta…How’d you manage to get treated so well?

Either you must have paid extra to receive such great treatment (by Delta’s recent standards) or you just happened to catch them on a really good day because they pretty much seem to act as if they have nothing but contempt for their customers anymore.

Trust me, I’ve seen Delta-in-action (or more like Delta “inaction”) firsthand as I was an independent contractor for Delta and every other passenger airline of note at the Atlanta Airport for three-and-a-half years.

Though, to Delta’s credit, they weren’t the worst of the airlines that I had to deal with…that credit goes to U.S. Airways…

(A word to the wise: Anyone who is traveling with anymore than a carry-on would be well-advised to send their luggage by way of a shipping specialist like Fed-Ex or UPS or even the U.S. Postal Service because at-least that way one is virtually guaranteed to see their bags again, ESPECIALLY if traveling on U.S. Airways…but you didn’t hear that from me)

ted in bed April 25, 2012 at 7:00 am

During the great times to fly (early 1990’s), I used to fly every week. If you had a ticket for that day, you could walk up and get on the standby list for a different flight, no charge. Getting to the plane was so fast, I’d only allow 15 mins to check my bags and get to the gate. The planes were clean and not jammed packed with seats.

Now, its a horrible experience. It starts with the physical assault on our bodies and Rights by the TSA and it ends being physically exhausted from every single hassle possible.

Lucky for productive people, ALGORE invented the internet. I can net or video conference anywhere in the world from my house. My productivity is very high because I don’t have to get on a plane. I jump from a meeting with a company in France to working with a co-worker in Pittsburgh in seconds. To fly now, I need approval from an Executive representing the CFO (I work for a company located within the top 20 on the Fortune list).

The airlines made flying horrible and people are going to find ways NOT to fly.

CobbGOPer April 25, 2012 at 1:37 pm

The only reason I still fly Delta is because my grandmother worked for them for 30 years, and she had me put on her dependent plan for a Flight Pass card. This means I can fly standby on any Delta flight and only pay taxes on the ticket. Really helped when I lived in DC as it only cost me ~$45 for a round-trip to Atlanta and back to see friends.

When my grandmother eventually passes and my flight privileges are rescinded, I will fly whomever is cheapest like everyone else.

ZazaPachulia April 25, 2012 at 2:02 pm

It’s not a good sign when possibly the most despised company in the U.S. (Ticketmaster) is compared favorably to your business.

Ticketmaster is actually doing some really cool and innovative things since the LiveNation merger. Unlike the airlines, which directly serve consumers, Ticketmaster was built to serve big clients–venues, artists and sports teams–often at the expense of the end user (the ticket buyer). Now, they’re at a tipping point. For the most part, they have convinced their big clients that people don’t have a great deal of incentive to go to live events if the ticket buying experience is akin to torture.

Delta has a lot to learn from Ticketmaster. Both are huge ecommerce companies and one is clearly much more innovative than the other. Charlie already mentioned the convenient time gates on Ticketmaster’s website. While Delta and the airlines continue to find ways to tack on fees, Ticketmaster knows that customers hate fees. For most Ticketmaster events these days, the fees are presented as part of the entire ticket price on the first page–before you start filling out forms to purchase seats. You now actually have to click on the price to see the breakdown in face value and fees. Some Ticketmaster clients have even agreed to roll the fees and taxes into one straight up ticket price (Like the Atlanta Hawks). Also, when you buy Hawks tickets online, you can zoom in on the seating map and select your actual seats. You can also tag the seats you purchase (through Facebook) so that your friends can see where you are sitting. If something comes up and you can’t go to the game, Ticketmaster will now help you resale your Hawks seats–even with an option to mark up the price… Delta does not have features like these because…???

But, in Delta’s defense, they do have an obnoxious video of their CEO telling you how amazing the airline is. You have to watch it every time you get on a Delta flight (along with the safety video–why can’t flight attendants do those presentations, again? Consumers like the personal touch!). Ticketmaster does not have a well-produced promo video that is required viewing for all customers… so there’s that.

(If any Delta folks are reading, I’d be happy to sign on as an executive and help fix the company)

The Last Democrat in Georgia April 25, 2012 at 6:29 pm

“If something comes up and you can’t go to the game, Ticketmaster will now help you resale your Hawks seats–even with an option to mark up the price… Delta does not have features like these because…???”

Delta does not have features like these because, simply put, they just don’t give a s— anymore.

Harry April 25, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Delta is no better or worse at innovative improvements than is the US post office, the US educational establishment, IRS, Georgia Department of Revenue, US automakers, healthcare industry, Fannie/Freddie, etc. etc.

The Last Democrat in Georgia April 25, 2012 at 10:27 pm

I worked as a subcontractor for a company that contracted for Delta for three-and-a-half years and dealt with Delta’s employees and their corporate culture on a daily basis. Employee morale had pretty much hit rockbottom compared to the glory days of the airline industry’s past (pre-9/11 era).

Trust me, Delta does not give a s— about customer service anymore.

Meaning, they’ve pretty much joined the ranks of all of the entities that you named.

It seems that Delta would value their customers even that much more in an era where they have to spend every living moment fighting for their basic corporate survival (and when I say “fighting for basic corporate survival”, I really mean “fight” as I was there when Delta successfully fought-off a doggedly-determined takeover attempt by U.S. Airways with everything they had left).

Dave Bearse April 26, 2012 at 12:51 am

Get yourself an Amex Platinum Delta Skymiles credit card, Charlie. I recollect the fee to be about a steep $160 annually, but it comes with one virtually free companion ticket annually, first bag free, priority boarding, and other goodies. (Maybe double or triple miles on the Delta fares charged to the card?) Apply at the right time and notch north of 10k miles with first purchase.

saltycracker April 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Paying to carry a credit card ? Nah.

For someone that flys under medallion level this is probably a bad deal and if over the medallion level a really bad deal, you get most of the perks.

Fidelity AMEX will pay you 2% cash back, no limit, no fee with a brokerage or IRA account.

I haven’t found a 25k mile trip that fit my schedule in years. It’d be one of the discounted runs and with the above card you’d have $500 to play with on any airline and still get the airline’s miles.

PLATINUM DELTA SKYMILES® CREDIT CARD
•Earn 25,000 bonus miles toward Award Travel
•Plus, earn 5,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) ® with your first purchase
•Check your first bag for free on every Delta flight
•Receive Zone 2 priority boarding on Delta flights
•Receive 20% In-Flight Savings on food and entertainment
•$150 annual fee

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