Delta Air Lines’ massive operational meltdown this week was a sharp fall for an airline that had been on the upswing.
Atlanta-based Delta spent the past several years establishing itself as a carrier with strong customer service and reliable operations.
Then came Monday morning’s shutdown after a computer system failure, followed by three days of delays and cancellations as Delta struggled to reboot. Images of miserable Delta customers stuck in airport terminals blanketed television news, social media and front pages.
“There certainly is a nick on our brand,” CEO Ed Bastian said.
Now Bastian and Delta face an unexpected image repair job.
Bastian, a Delta veteran promoted to the CEO post last spring, did not shrink from the negative spotlight. He issued video apologies and repeated them in a round of midweek interviews. He gave the most detailed account of what happened, citing a failure to ensure that some of the airline’s critical servers had backup power.
“I am as disappointed as anyone could be, for lots of reasons,” he said. “We’ll need to go back out and earn that customer trust.”
In addition to apologies, Delta’s damage control effort included $200 vouchers to affected customers and waived change fees for rebookings. Smaller touches ranged from digital billboards displaying a “thank you for your patience” message to gift cards or flowers sent to some Twitter complainers.
That won’t mollify some. Two travelers’ rights groups called for Delta to issue full refunds or free rebooking without cost or time limits. The groups, Travelers United and FlyersRights, said the $200 voucher is “clearly inadequate” to cover the cost of food and lodging for those who endured overnight delays.
The episode could be damaging even among those who weren’t flying last week.
“They [Delta] position themselves as the premium airline, and then they showed I think tremendous disrespect to their customers,” said Eric Schiffer, CEO of ReputationManagementConsultants.com.
Molly Lensing’s experience capsulizes the battle Delta faces with some customers.
Lensing, of Fort Myers, Fla., was returning home with her 2-month-old baby from a visit to her brother in Colorado and was connecting through Delta’s Atlanta hub. Customers like Lensing are bread-and-butter business for Delta, whose domestic operation is geared around such hub connections.
Lensing’s trip went wrong from the start and got worse. Her initial flight Monday was canceled, she said. Then her rebooked flight Tuesday was delayed 6 hours, causing her to miss her connection at Hartsfield-Jackson International.
She waited until after midnight for another flight that was ultimately canceled, then in line for customer service until 4:30 a.m., only to be told there were no more hotel vouchers. With her baby at her side, she went to sleep on the airport floor.
“I’m glad I packed a lot of diapers,” she said.
Talking to a reporter while changing her daughter’s diaper in the terminal atrium Wednesday morning, Lensing said she was rebooked on a flight Thursday. She couldn’t stomach another long wait for an uncertain flight, though, and was arranging for her parents to drive her to Fort Myers instead.
Lensing said Delta handled the situation “horribly.” She said the $200 voucher “seems ridiculous,” taking into account the extra child care costs for two days for her two toddlers at home.
“I splurged for the ‘good’ airline this time,” rather than flying a low-cost carrier, she said. The experience “definitely makes me question if they’re a better option.”
Some are optimistic about Delta’s ability to rebound in passengers’ eyes. They note that other airlines have weathered technical meltdowns, and all face periodic weather events that wreck operations.
“Delta going into this had a pretty good reputation, and that will help them coming out of it,” said Bryan Reber, a University of Georgia professor of crisis communications. “Of course they’ll lose some customers, [but] I don’t think it’s anything that they’re going to have to adjust their balance sheet for … Now, if this happens again soon, that’s a whole different story.”
Delta’s computer outage was more damaging than a storm, shutting off passenger communications capabilities at a time they were needed most.
Many travelers whose flights were canceled didn’t get notifications and couldn’t get good information from Delta about when their flights were rescheduled. And early in the week, even Delta’s customer service agents in airports lacked information to help customers.
Those issues also left Delta struggling in its efforts to “reset” its flight schedule, leading to rolling delays that kept many customers stuck in airport gate areas for hours on end, only to have a flight canceled.
It didn’t help that Delta last year discontinued an agreement with American Airlines that allows the airlines to accommodate each other’s passengers in the even of flight cancellations. American is the world’s largest airline and, while not a big player in Atlanta, could have eased the pain in other markets.
Delta had complained last fall that, because of its low cancellation rate, it was carrying many more rebooked American passengers than vice versa. The ratio was five-to-one, according to Delta.
“At that rate the industry agreement was no longer mutually beneficial,” Eric Phillips, Delta’s senior vice president of revenue management, said in a written statement at the time.
Other deals intact
Bastian noted Wednesday that Delta has similar “interline” agreements with other airlines that accommodated passengers, adding he does not regret scuttling the American deal.
Some travelers were understanding even amid the meltdown.
Charkeveia Hall, 18, was scheduled to fly Delta on the very first flight of her life, from Orlando to Atlanta for basic training in the Army Reserves.
Her Tuesday afternoon flight was delayed until Wednesday morning. “I was just sitting around eating until I had no more money,” said Hall, who eventually got a voucher for a hotel room and a few hours sleep before her flight.
“I felt they did the best they could,” she said.
Ann Hutchins, flying home to Vermont through the Atlanta hub, wound up spending Tuesday night at Hartsfield-Jackson before finally buying a seat on an American flight the next day.
“There’s no real point to having a tantrum,” Hutchins said as she waited at the airport. But, she said, “I will never fly Delta and I will tell people to never fly Delta.”