Tuesday, January 23, 2001
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Posted on: Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Delta won some, lost some in trying to help passengers

By Marilyn Adams
USA Today

The last two months at Delta Air Lines have been a nightmare, as angry pilots and icy weather wrought chaos for hundreds of thousands of passengers.

How has Delta handled the crisis? It depends on whom you ask.

USA TODAY asked readers who fly Delta to relate their recent experiences. The picture that emerges from passengers is one of very uneven service: horror stories and hero stories, side by side.

Take the tales of two high-mileage, "gold medallion" Delta customers.

John Keating, a Philadelphia-based lighting designer, has had two flights canceled in recent weeks. The first time he was rebooked home on America West, which diverted to Columbus, forcing him to drive a rental car eight hours. When the second flight canceled, Delta said he was confirmed on US Airways, but he found he wasn’t when he arrived at the gate. That flight was full and Keating had to wait three hours for the next one.

"I’m an elite customer of Delta’s," says Keating, who flies more than 50,000 miles a year on the airline. "I’d hate to see what they do to their casual customers."

But Chuck Bennett, an executive from Sandy, Utah, has nothing but praise. When his Salt Lake City-to-Seattle flight was canceled, Bennett was automatically rebooked on United. First class.

"This was a new experience, being called in advance," says Bennett. "It was awesome."

December worst month in memory

Delta is embroiled in a contract dispute with the union representing its 10,000 pilots, the only major work group unionized there. Since November, many pilots have been refusing to fly overtime, on which Delta depends for at least 5 percent of its schedule. December was the worst month in memory for Atlanta-based Delta, whose system was also disrupted by two southern ice storms and a New York blizzard.

The Air Line Pilots Association denies any organized, no-overtime campaign. But last week a federal appeals court disagreed, granting Delta’s request for an injunction against the union.

As of Monday, the injunction had not yet been issued.

Delta says bad weather and pilot unavailability cost the airline $84 million in December revenue. The airline says 48 percent of the 8,735 flight cancellations last month were crew-related, and that 350,000 passengers were affected.

This month has been only somewhat better. About 2,500 January flights had been canceled as of last Thursday, 46 percent of which were crew-related, Delta says.

"We have absolutely no way to verify those numbers and have to question them," says ALPA spokeswoman Karen Miller. "We’re telling our pilots that we oppose a concerted job action."

Negotiations with a mediator are scheduled for Tuesday through Friday in Atlanta.

Lost revenue is only the beginning. Delta hasn’t released a figure for the costs of accommodating hordes of inconvenienced passengers: hotel rooms, meals, thousands of hours of employee overtime nationwide.

"It has to be a large figure," says Delta spokesman John Kennedy. "We were just thrilled to get planes running and people on them."

Staffing more than doubled during holiday

In the past, Delta has boasted spending millions to upgrade technology and staffing to provide outstanding customer service and minimize the impact of delays and cancellations. During the holiday turmoil, the airline’s staff of 300 agents who call passengers about canceled flights swelled to more than 800, Kennedy says. Many reservations agents were hastily reassigned to call passengers, rather than take orders.

"On New Year’s Eve," after the New York blizzard, "we had 70,000 people to call," Kennedy says. He says Delta agents reached 80 percent of those customers in advance of their flight times.

Talk to Delta customers about the weeks around Christmas and New Year’s, and it’s as if they were dealing with two different airlines. Part of the reason passengers’ experiences varied so much may have had to do with who called them — trained customer service agents or employees who hadn’t done that work before.

William Allen III, a Raleigh, N.C.-based "platinum medallion" customer who flies 100,000 miles a year on Delta, says his dreaded Christmas Eve call came from an ill-informed agent. He was told his new flight would arrive in California after midnight, eight hours later than the canceled flight, and his family’s first-class seats wouldn’t be honored.

When Allen protested Delta treating a platinum-level customer that way, the agent denied he was platinum and scolded him, he says. Allen then realized she was looking at the record of his 2-year-old son, also named William Allen. When the confusion was cleared up, Delta rebooked them on American Airlines, first class.

Last two months called 'hell on wings'

Allen, a management consultant, is still angry. He says he called the airline every day for a week about his Christmas Eve flight and was assured it was fine, even though he suspects someone at Delta must have known it wasn’t. He can’t understand how the airline could have invested in so much new technology, yet Delta employees "have no idea what to do with their expensive information systems."

After flying Delta for 25 years, "spending $30,000-$80,000 a year on their tickets, you’d think they would at least be able to identify me as a valuable customer when things go wrong," he says. "Delta has proven it’s as cynical as any other U.S. carrier when it claims to give a damn about customers."

Not all Delta passengers have gotten advance calls. Pete Gammon, an IBM software sales executive from Lexington, Ky., flew nearly 200 segments on Delta last year. He calls the last two months on Delta "hell on wings." He recalls boarding a flight and having to deplane 30 minutes later because the pilot walked off. He missed a sales presentation in Atlanta that may have cost him a lucrative order.

But platinum customer John Faulkner of Denver thinks the airline has done all it could have.

When his family’s recent flight was canceled, "they put us on United, first class," says Faulkner, a Caterpillar equipment distributor. "They’ve been tenaciously calling me at home about cancellations. They’ve been honest when it’s a pilot issue. They’ve gone out of their way."

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