Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

By November 13, 2013Market-Driven

I feel it in my heart. The decision is divorce.

I came to this relationship three years ago. It started casually. It was off and on. I tried to give it a go and make it stick. I thought that we could make this work, but I was wrong.

The What?

Airline experiences, in my blog, give me many “teaching moments” for supply chain leaders. Customer service and the delivery of the brand promise is job number one for a supply chain leader.   We all travel, and can relate to airline stories. I can use them to emphasize some principles that I think matter.

Here is the story:

For the past three years, I achieved Delta Diamond frequent flier status. The Diamond experience gets me preferential treatment. In 2013 I gave Delta preference. I made a choice to fly Delta over other airlines—despite layovers and price—but, not now. Last week changed this.

Slowly, the Delta Diamond status and the perks granted have become less important due to changing Delta policies. Airport lounges and clubs are now very crowded, the TSA lines are longer, and the upgrade lists are less certain due to the change in policy to allow access to credit card holders.

I have spent a lot of time in a Delta airline seat.  Last year it was 74 segments and 122,000 miles. It was a transactional cost of $62,000. I am not sure where I stack in the ranks of Delta Diamond Medallion members, but Diamond is the highest status; and  trust me, 122,000 miles is a lot of miles.

At the start of each segment, I am forced to listen to the voice of Delta’s new CEO, Richard Anderson. The videos started this year. Hearing them over and over again is tiring. Each flight starts with a video:

“…on behalf of the entire Delta family, I want to thank you for loyalty. My name is Richard Anderson, and I have the privilege of working with Delta employees. They are the finest in the industry. We are committed to serving our customers….”

The So What…

What happened that is driving the divorce? Here is the background.

Case Number 10482476

Message: I am a Diamond, Million Miler passenger. Tonight, I was flying on your 8:10 flight from Atlanta to Seattle. I am tired. I want to get work done. I am not looking forward to the flight. I was number three on the upgrade list. There were two seats open, and I did not make the cut. I was next on the list.

I buckled up in my 29D seat and prepared for the journey. However, before the plane left the gate, the gate agent came and moved a Delta employee from 30A to first class. Evidently, one additional passenger did not show. I questioned the gate agent saying, “If a passenger did not show, and I was next on the list, and you agree that I am next on the list, should this not be my seat?” He abruptly stated that the Delta employee was on “official business.” My question is, shouldn’t the “official business” Delta employees be listed on the monitor as well? He walked away.

What I want to know is WHY THE DELTA EMPLOYEE IN SEAT 30A WAS MOVED TO SEAT 3B as the doors of flight 2329 were shutting with 40 of your loyal passengers still on the upgrade list.

_______________________________________________

 There are circumstances which enable nonrevenue passengers to receive upgrades on flights when Medallion members do not. The restrictions placed on employee travel and the benefits of the Medallion upgrade program are independent from one another from a business standpoint.

I realize it can be frustrating when a nonrevenue passenger receives an upgrade that was not showing on the Upgrade Board at the gate. Please keep in mind that Delta strictly follows the policy and procedures we have established for both programs.

 We appreciate the opportunity to again be of service to you. We look forward to welcoming you aboard your next flight and thank you for your continued Medallion loyalty.

 Sincerely, Belle Star, Diamond Desk

________________________________

Belle

I am very disappointed in your answer.  The two programs merge for the gate agent to make a decision. As a passenger, I am just asking for a better understanding of the rules.

What circumstance allowed this Delta employee to be placed ahead of me for placement in the open seat when he was not on the monitor? And, why do you not display all requests on the monitor (including Delta employees)?

I am noticing a steady degradation of employee attentiveness. For example on this flight, the steward stood next to me in the aisle most of the flight so that he could see another passenger’s flight monitor to view the game.

There were not snacks available for purchase, and I find the peppering of Fairfield ads on the monitors to be intrusive.

Not a happy Delta passenger tonight.

Lora

__________________________________________________________

 Thank you for your reply.

 As a general matter of policy, employees traveling on company business are able to stand by for an upgrade and will be cleared after all Medallion members have been upgraded. They are also listed on the upgrade list on the monitors at the airport in the correct order.

 However, there are some exceptions from a contractual standpoint that require us to adhere to different rules for certain work groups. In those situations, an employee may be placed in the First Class cabin ahead of Medallion members. We try to make this process invisible to our customers, not because we are trying to hide anything, but because the internal affairs of some of our processes are truly meant to be internal only. We sincerely apologize that this process was displayed in public.

 I have forwarded your comments regarding the lack of in-flight service and food for purchase options to our in-flight leadership team for review. We want to make sure that you have everything you need for a comfortable flight, and we are disappointed that you were unhappy with the service on board. As a gesture of goodwill for these problems, I have added 5,000 SkyMiles to your account with the hope that you will continue to make Delta your airline of choice for future travels. We really do appreciate your Diamond Medallion and Million Miler loyalty to Delta, and we look forward to seeing you on board on Tuesday. 

Thank you for giving Delta the opportunity to serve your travel needs.

Sincerely, Rob O’Rourke,  Diamond Desk

_____________________________________________________________________________________

I have flown 122,000 miles with Delta this year with over 70 segments. With each takeoff and landing, you force me to listen to a recording of Richard Anderson talking about how he is privileged to “work with the finest employees that care about the customers.”

On the Seattle flight I was using miles. I cashed in 100,000 miles that would have a $3200 value if I purchased them. I am 2,200 miles short of qualifying for my third year in the Delta Diamond Medallion program.

I am a guest writer for a popular magazine/online site. The article that I will be writing is on “Why Jet Blue Will Win” in the market. I do not want the 5,000 miles offered to me in the email below. Please take it back. What I want to know is WHY THE DELTA EMPLOYEE IN SEAT 30A WAS MOVED TO SEAT 3B as the doors of flight 2329 were shutting with 40 of your loyal passengers still on the upgrade list.

Let’s be clear on the retelling of the events:

  • -The flight was held 15 minutes to enable passengers on an Aruba flight to make this connection.
  • -When the boarding ended, two frequent fliers were upgraded. I was next on your list on the monitors.
  • -The line on the jet way was long. I spoke to your gate agent on the jetway about how I was next on the list, and I thought he had an opening in first class, and if that passenger did not show, I was in 29D.
  • -The 29th row, where I was seating, was three rows back from the boarding door. When the passenger for 3B did not arrive, he motioned for the Delta employee to move to first class over me. The Delta employee was not listed above me on the monitors.
  • -When I questioned the gate agent, he was evasive saying that it was official “Delta business” that he moved the Delta employee ahead of all of the frequent fliers on the list. He would not answer the question of “why he was not listed on the monitor” or “what was the official business”
  • -It was clear that if the passenger for 3B had made the plane that the Delta employee would not have been upgraded.
  • -On the flight, I was peppered with offers to buy. The movies were $6, I had to listen to Fairfield Inn adds, the headsets were $2.
  • -I had a Delta Medallion coupon for a free snack. You had none on board.
  • -The flight was full. It was late.
  • -My personal monitor at my seat did not work very well.
  • -The flight attendant stood next to me in the aisle so that he could watch the game bending over next to me with his body. His rear was in my face for about 2500 miles of the flight.
  • -No one on this flight made me feel like a valued passenger.

So, in closing, please take back your 5000 points. I will not be flying you in the short term. I think that we need a divorce.

___________________

Thank you for sharing your disappointment with our Vice President of Reservations and Customer Care, Allison Ausband. She’s asked me to respond to you. It must’ve been very frustrating to see someone given an open seat in First Class when you had let our gate agent know that you were the next person on the standby list for an upgrade.

As a Diamond Medallion and Million Miler, you know the service we strive to provide. I want to ensure you receive an accurate answer to your question. I’m presently reviewing your travel with another team. Once we have completed our review, I will respond promptly. Your patience during this process is valued.

Regards,

Gina Rubino, Customer Solutions Specialist, Corporate Customer Care, Delta Air Lines

You Share, We Care

Gina never responded.

__________________________________________________

The below email chain was forwarded to my attention, and I wanted to personally reply.  While I realize that you are disappointed in the outcome of not receiving an upgrade in this particular situation, the rationale explained by our Diamond Executive Desk is actually accurate.

 In nearly every instance, Diamond Medallions are upgraded first and take top priority in our complimentary upgrade program and processing.  As you know, these upgrades clear within 5 days of departure, and in some instances, won’t clear when the First Class cabin is full of paid First Class passengers or customers who cleared the upgrade at a prior time (for example – they used miles or one of their global upgrade certificates to clear at time of booking rather than waiting for a complimentary upgrade).

 Although it is possible in very rare circumstances that an employee is placed into First Class for travel, those reasons are not common and would generally be driven by a contractual agreement between the employee and Delta.  While I appreciate your desire to be made aware of who was upgraded and what that purpose was, these contracts are proprietary and confidential.  Likely not want you want to hear, but again, these situations are rare.  Employees nearly always only sit in First Class after all paying passengers, including elites requesting complimentary upgrades.  This can be supported through the fact that Diamond Medallions on average are upgraded more than 90% of the time on eligible domestic flights.

 Jeff Robertson, Vice President – SkyMiles Program

Jeff’s final response was that upgrades of Delta employees over Delta Medallion members happens and that it is not transparent to the customer. The Delta employees are not shown on the boarding monitors, and that it is normally not an issue. That it will happen on a rare occasions….

_____________________________________________________________________________________

I sent the email to trail to Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta to see if I could get him to engage in the dialogue before I wrote my article. He referred me to his Customer Solution Specialist – Executive Correspondence, Corporate Customer Care, Roger Salz. His reply, “I am quivering.” <Gotta love a sarcastic response!>

 What Can We Learn?

  • Loyalty Programs should Be Loyal. But, Today Customer Engagement Matters More. Delta had an opportunity to learn from me and to build my loyalty. The CEO did not engage, and there is no recognition of the problem.
  • Customer Communication needs to be Transparent and Consistent. The head of the Delta Medallion program stated that Diamond members are upgraded 90% of the time and that there are many times that Delta employees are moved ahead of loyalty program members without transparency. It is just how it is.  My take-away, “Be glad for the times that I am upgraded.” There is no recognition that the monitor sets an expectation that is unfulfilled.
  • The Customer is always Right. And, when responding to a problem, empathy helps. Notice the different tones of the responses.
  • Listening is a Learning Opportunity. Delta sends me a survey each flight to understand how I liked the experience. Most of the time , I ignore them. However, in this email exchange, I openly shared information. It was never acknowledged.

I only wish we had more true choice when we fly.

In summary:

  • If you as a company really don’t care, don’t say that you do.
  • Customer segmentation and customer loyalty should matter. Customer service should have the customer’s back.
  • Customer engagement is a wonderful way for companies to learn and deepen loyalty. Many companies do not know how to directly engage with customers.
  • Execution should be transparent, visible and reliable. Don’t play hidden games, it only makes a customer mad.

I think that the answer here for Lora is divorce. Next year, I will be checking out other airline options.

I am hoping that the answer for you is to think more holistically about your customer service programs. And, if you are Delta Diamond, and a Delta employee gets preferential treatment on the upgrade list, don’t waste your time complaining. It is just how it is.

Lora Cecere

Author Lora Cecere

Lora Cecere is the Supply Chain Shaman. A shaman interprets and connects an evolving world to a group of followers. Lora does this for supply chain. As the founder of Supply Chain Insights and the author of Supply Chain Shaman, Lora travels the world to chart the course of supply chain practices and disruptive technologies. Her blog focuses on the use of enterprise applications to drive supply chain excellence.

More posts by Lora Cecere

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Tim Shaw says:

    Wow, just wow… as a fellow Delta frequent flyer I feel your pain and have to thank you for enlightening your readers on a Delta practice that I expect almost all of us frequent flyers have experienced at one point or another — the mysterious Delta employee “on official company business” upgrade over a longtime loyal revenue generating customer and the fact that the upgarde status board may not be the telling the truth. Sadly, most of us have also experienced the fact that at the end of the day it shows that Delta truly doesn’t care… and this is the most troubling aspect.

    As a frequent flyer based in Atlanta, I don’t have as many choices – especially on direct and international routes. But I must admit that in the past year, I’ve strayed from Delta a few times – mainly because of Delta’s lack of early morning departures from ATL. In Delta’s defense, I will say that most of the time I enjoy my Delta experiences over the other airlines, even in coach, due to newer and generally more roomy seating than most of Delta’s competitors. Coach service stinks no matter what domestic airline you choose (one exception is the attitudes of crews at Southwest – which in addition to free checked bags, makes mundane flying fun).

    Breaking up is hard to do. Hope Delta takes your suggestions to heart and I’m looking forward to hearing more on this story.

  • Jimmy Ev says:

    I can say that as a fellow Diamond Medallion for three years running I’ve only seen what you saw happen twice; and it didn’t affect my upgrade standing. If a crew member is ‘dead-heading’, that is being transported from one city to another to work a flight (usually that same day) they are entitled to fly first class. I know people who work for Delta who are sympathetic to this predicament but their side of the argument is that they traveling for work just as you or I are. This is also the first-class meal for crew syndrome too…flight attendants taking trays covered with a napkin to the back of the plane when the rest in coach are eating peanuts and pretzels. Those crew members who are dead-heading are in uniform…they will NOT upgrade a crew member who is traveling for recreation on a free pass or heading home after a shift unless everyone on the upgrade list has been cleared. On a flight to Athens I actually saw several crew members ejected from Business Elite because they were on free passes and revenue passengers arrived late and took the seats.

    • Lora Cecere Lora Cecere says:

      Yes, I am calmed down now. If they had explained the rule, I would have backed down. What bothered me was the lack of honesty all of the way to the chairman. Water under the bridge now…

  • […] also searched the Internet ad nauseam, finding posts like this one from a diamond flier and plenty of helpful articles that shared nuggets of advice like this […]

  • […] also searched the Internet ad nauseam, finding posts like this one from a diamond flier and plenty of helpful articles that shared nuggets of advice like this […]

  • Andrew says:

    I’m a multi-year Diamond, as are likely most people who read this and said, “yeah, I’ve seen that happen…” I fly over 175k per year, on Delta, and perhaps another 10-15 on other carriers because of last minute travel, sheer flight availability, occasional cost, and sensible routing. I live in a non-hub area for Delta (Denver/Colorado Springs), almost everything is a connection for me.

    The gate agents have a lot of lattitude when it comes to assigning upgrades that never appear on monitors or website/app lists. Other airlines, as in the case of United in Denver can – and do – assign fare classes that “bump” Diamonds when they seat their cancelled or delayed passengers. To be clear, United flyers, with no Delta status, get first class seats. It’s surely a good plot to try and lure United flyers over to Delta, except at the expense of loyal Delta passengers. If the agents who are working the flight don’t correct that fare shift, those United flyers get the seats.

    In almost every airport I fly through, I am almost always first or second in the list to be upgraded if it hasn’t already occured by the time I board. More often than not, it is because the fare class purchased is higher because they’re last-minute bookings. Denver is the only airport I miss upgrades (including ATL, DTW, SLC, and MSP), even up to 30 min before departure up be first with as many as 4 seats available. My first time complaining I was told that they sold 4 first class tickets in the last 15 minutes. I suppose that’s possible, but so are balanced budgets and unicorns.

    On SEVERAL occasions, particularly around the holidays, children and spouses of airline employees, pilots and ground people alike, are often upgraded in front of Medallions. To top off this experience rant, I sat next to a woman in 1st class that admitteded to me that she lived IN HER CAR at a beach in San Diego, was jobless, and got a first class ticket through someone she knew inside Delta. For those still reading, it was a cross country flight, and someone with tired buns sat in coach because of that.

    For what it’s worth, and I am debating if I should start taking my travel beating from United, the Delta experience is better. The employees are generally happier, although not always attentive, as mentioned in the original post, and getting your travel fixed when it goes awry is easier, partcularly for those who fly loyally.

    Other than that, none of them are any good. Those of us who expect something to change should start the hunt for that unicorn ranch. Fasten your seatbelt, turn your phone off, and just hope the routing is favorable so it’s over sooner.

    Travel safely, everyone.

    • Lora Cecere Lora Cecere says:

      Thanks for making me laugh! I so agree. Tough to see the United upgrades in front of us 1M miler diamonds. However, I have to admit that Delta service is better than American and United. A couple of tips that I have learned. Book early: you have a better chance of getting an upgrade. Wait to board and let your gate agent know that you are next on the list if you are on the bubble. Look him in the eye every now and again. You will have a better chance of making the cut.

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