In the not-so-distant past, Delta Air Lines had a musical jingo and tag line used broadly in its advertisingall designed to support the claim that ♫ "Delta is ready when you are!" ♫
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Last month, for the first time in several years, I flew Delta. I selected Delta for all the reasons that matter in making the choice of a domestic carrier: It offered the schedule that would get me where I wanted to go, and it did so at the best price going. My flight would take me from Washington Dulles to Memphis via Atlanta. I would take an early morning flight (scheduled to depart at 7 am) and arrive at my destination just before 10:30, leaving me the bulk of the day to go about normal business rather than negotiating airports. Such a deal!
The Delay and Its Aftermath
My first clue that things were not going according to plan occurred when I arrived at the departure gate. Next to my flight number on the message board appeared DELAYED in ominous capital letters. OK, I had over an hour between flights in Atlanta, so I had a bit of leeway. Also, the Delta official announcing the delay noted that everyone down the line was aware of our situation and would do their best to make sure the effect on passengers would be minimized.
As for the reason for our delay, it was one I had never experienced before: it was a rest delay. The flight crew had apparently arrived aboard another flight that had been behind schedule, and federal law required that they be allowed a minimum rest period before they flew again. The new departure time was set for 7:40, with boarding to occur 20-30 minutes before take-off. At 7:50, we finally began boarding. Our taxi from the gate came about half an hour later.
Needless to say, most passengers on our flight missed their connections. For me, it meant completing my journey some 4½ hours later than plannedif, that is, the new connecting flight arrived in Memphis on time (for the record, it didnt). For a number of other passengers, it meant arriving in Albuquerque in the early evening instead of before noonwhich meant rearranging personal and business plans because of the delayed arrival time. Still others were offered the exact same connection they had missed, save that it would depart a full day later. And for at least one passenger, it meant a delay in meeting her husband, a soldier about to be deployed to Iraq. I know all this about my fellow passengers because we were all in line together, all trying to establish our new connections, and all pouring out frustrations of one sort or another because Delta had not been ready when we were.
My Thoughts About the Delay
Now dont get me wrong, I appreciate fully the need for an airliner's crew to have adequate rest. I begrudge them nothing on that account. I dont want to be flown by a crew thats tired. Still, in putting together a presumed timetable for the events my fellow passengers and I experienced, it would seem that the process was one in which delay begat delay upon delay. The delay for my Dulles-to-Atlanta flight had clearly been expected, had been anticipated several hours before it occurred. For the sake of a mere 40 minutes, the delay originally predicted by Delta, dozens of schedules were affectedand possibly a cascade effect of dozens or even hundreds more that I know nothing about. Moreover, Delta incurred the cost of several overnight stays and meals for inconvenienced passengersall this for a delay that had been anticipated several hours in advance.
I understand that there are a myriad of reasons for an air line to experience delays, and I myself have experienced many of thesedelays for mechanical problems, delays due to inclement weather, delays caused by employee labor actions. Ive even experienced a delay resulting from a passenger who lit up in the lavatoryand then refused to open the lavatory door. But this rest delay was novel. Had I been asked, I would have bet that the carrier had a roster of qualified personnel on call in the event of such an occurrence, that they would be able to call in a substitute crewparticularly for such a key hub as Washington Dulles. Surely the cost for such a contingency would be less than the effect of an expected delay?
Carrying my thoughts on this experience a bit further, I wonder at the financial condition in which major carriers find themselvesDelta included. Some air lines manage to be profitable despite competition, fuel prices, and labor costs. I dont pretend to know why this is so, but clearly, Delta has not found the magic formula.
Security Regarding issues related to flight security, paramount these day, I noticed no discernable difference between standard practices at Delta and other air lines Ive recently flown. Passenger checks are conducted by federal workers employed by the Transportation Security Administration. By and large, the coordination between TSA and the various air lines appear seamless, and redundant (and exasperating) security procedures appear to be a thing of the past.
Special Needs Although my return flight went off without a schedule hitch, I had cause to notice that service for special-needs passengers does not always run smoothly. My seatmate on the first leg of my return flight arrived at the gate in a wheelchair and with two carry-ons (one quite heavy). By chance, and though we were strangers to one another, we sat in adjoining seats at the gate and we held tickets to the same row on the plane.
By the time boarding began, no one had arrived to provide my seatmate with pre-boarding assistance. She was an elderly woman with limited mobility, but she could walk slowly without assistance. She could not, however, handle her carry-ons. When our section (one of the last to be called) was announced, I took charge of her carry-ons (in addition to my own), and she began a rather slow pace down the jetway. Just inside the door of the cabin, I asked one of the flight attendants to take charge of the luggage and assist her to her seat. It turns out that Delta attendants are not charged with assisting passengers in this mannernot even for passengers like my seatmate. Her small-but-heavy wheeled case was placed in underseat stowage (fortunately, the middle seat between us was empty), and I myself lifted the smaller case into the overhead rack. (It was too heavy for the young attendant to lift, but not too heavy to be managed by a middle-aged grandmother like myself.)
Im certain that Ive never before heard cabin attendants make such admissions against the interests of customer service as I heard on this flight. The flight crew blamed the skycaps and the ground crew for the lapses in service that occurred. But my seatmates ticket was from Delta, and it seems to me that the flight crew could have made a greater effort to help a passenger who very clearly needed assistance. In fairness, once the plane was in the air, a member of the flight crew came back to apologize for the inconvenience caused, told my seatmate that her reservation had clearly noted that assistance was required, and asked her to remain seated when we landedthat a skycap would come aboard to help her deplane. The same crewmember extended a thank you to me for the assistance I provided. Still, once my seatmates problem was known, the principle of customer service should have required a bit more immediate assistance on her behalf.
Customer Service Deltas customer service in general was neither terrible nor wonderful:
~ Deltas check-in procedure for passengers with electronic tickets was not entirely smooth, but delays was very brief and agents were pleasant.
~ Verbal instructions offered for acquiring new boarding passes (made necessary by our missed connections) were somewhat contradictory, but once we were in the system at the customer service counter, the process moved quicklyif not always with the desired results.
~ On-board service for meals and refreshments continues to decline for coach passengers. I dont particularly like either almonds or pretzels, and I've noticed that beverage options have narrowed markedly on many flights. Meals are apparently available for purchase on Delta flights, but I know this only because of the posters I saw in the departure lounges. The opportunity to purchase meals was not mentioned on any of my four legs of travel.
Comfort Coach seating on Delta is no roomier than on any other carrier I've flown recently and not as good as what Ive experienced on some Continental flights. I did by chance get an exit row seat on my Atlanta-to-Memphis connection, and that was niceplenty of leg room there!
There was once a time when Delta was my favored air carrier. That time has, sadly, passed. Although Delta personnel are still (by and large) courteous, the companys inability to anticipate and mitigate schedule delays and service failures is frustrating. All the courtesy in the world doesnt compensate for a pattern of performance failures.
In my opinion, coach service on Delta has taken its industry one giant step closer to becoming a not-so-glorified bus system. Passengers are crammed into small spaces, encouraged to bring their own food and drink, and left to their own devices to handle special situations. Indeed, legroom on an old-fashioned intercity bus is better than what one finds today on a typical airliner in coach. Unfortunately, these problems apply to air travel in general, but they have never been so obvious to me as they were with my journey aboard Delta. I'm old enough to still believe that air travel should have a touch of romance. Even if the industry can't manage to restore the old romance to flying, surely it can do better. . . .
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