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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris IT'S GRIN-AND-BEAR-IT
TIME AT DELTA AIR LINES


BY CHRIS BARNETT

December 2, 2004 -- Putting on a brave public face and a smile is tough when your job benefits have been slashed and your paycheck may go out the window, but Delta Air Lines' ground and cabin crews deserve a round of applause for showing amazing grace under fire.

I recently flew three Delta flights on a transcontinental roundtrip with takeoffs or touchdowns at four airports and had a mostly pleasant, even relaxing journey. During the 6,200-mile jaunt, I had face-to-face contact with more than a dozen Delta flight attendants and five ticket counter staffers. Almost all were helpful, surprisingly mellow and positive as the airline teeters on the brink of bankruptcy

True, a few segments hardly give a true picture of any airline's morale. But in chatting up Delta staff, I think this is a good snapshot. Three-fourths of the flight attendants I encountered were Delta lifers with 25-to-35 years of experience and they have seen how the once-proud carrier has gone into a tailspin.

Crew members I spoke with were sad or angry (or both) that an airline and a career they loved were gutted by two former chief executives--Ron Allen and Leo Mullin--who were arrogant, self-dealing, mismanagers with zero people skills. The duo was no great shakes as labor negotiators either because Delta's cockpit crews were the highest paid of all U.S. airlines. But that's old news.

My 6 a.m. check-in at San Francisco International went smoothly enough. Delta had lots of agents helping people at the check-in kiosks. I wanted the human touch and got it from an almost-serene agent who switched me to an aisle seat, double-checked my frequent-flyer miles and patiently answered nearly a dozen questions.

The flight to Palm Beach connected through Delta's soon-to-be-abandoned Dallas hub and I found myself on an MD-90 with 2x3 seating. If you're an in-flight movie watcher, it's no picnic, especially if you've sampled the at-your-seat television on JetBlue, Frontier and Song, Delta's discount sibling. On the MD-90s, small TV-sized monitors are sprinkled throughout the cabin and you either buy a $2 take-it-with-you headset or use your own.

Takeoff was on-time and the pilot announcements were personable, even cheerful. You'd never know that on October 30, Delta's pilots, the highest paid in the U.S. airline industry, grudgingly accepted a hefty 32.5 percent pay cut and a five-year wage freeze.

Once the plane climbed out of the Bay Area and leveled off, 19 laptop computers (I counted) were fired up. I expected the business traveler's nightmare--tight legroom and the seat in front reclining so far back I wouldn't be able to work--but, surprise, it was roomy enough to work. According to SeatGuru.com, Delta's seat pitch in economy class on an MD-90 ranges from an extremely uncomfortable 30 inches to 32 inches, which is almost roomy. I must have lucked out because I got in three hours of productive work.

Of course, Delta was always perceived as a business-friendly airline. It built its reputation catering to business travelers with a generous frequent-flyer program and Crown Room clubs that offered free cocktails and a welcoming staff. Today, however, some road warriors are weary of Delta's Spartan in-flight service.

"My loyalty to Delta is strictly the frequent-flyer program. Otherwise I'd be on Southwest," says banker Jason Berman. "I am loyal so why should I pay two bucks for a headset?" But for every critic, there is a believer. Real-estate appraiser Charlie Elliott says he "always has had good experiences with Delta." And, in fairness, it's not all that bare-bones on board. The coffee is a rich blend, there are salads and sandwiches for sale at $8 to $9 on some flights and Delta still has stacks of magazines on board.

Delta's flight attendants may be smiling on the outside but, privately, they're in pain and some will talk about it--but only anonymously. The airline is closing its Dallas/Fort Worth hub on January 1, which will affect 2,000 employees. Says one 35-year Delta veteran: "I had this dream job, I remember thinking, and they're paying me to do it. Every trip was like a mini-vacation. Meals were so lavish in first class on Delta's old L-1011s, it was like coming out of your ears."

Another Delta flight attendant, with 25 years on the job, bemoans the current class of passengers. "People would dress up to fly," she said. "Now they come in with their hair in rollers and their suitcase is a garbage bag." A third flight attendant who has 30 years experience laments the airline's recent management style. "Dave Garrett, our last great CEO, was an awesome man who treated us all like a happy family. We were envied by other airlines. But Ron Allen came in, started cutting everywhere---benefits, layover time, vacation time, rest time--and made us a dysfunctional family."

Former flight attendant Lisa Taipei, who flew for Delta and later for Song, now makes $5.80 an hour working in a bookstore in New Mexico and she's happy. She quit Delta after seven years. "I thought Delta would be my career but, after 9/11, the whole atmosphere changed," she said. "While I was honored to be part of Song, I needed a job environment that was more upbeat."

Taipei and virtually every Delta rank-and-file worker has made substantial salary, benefit and work-rule concessions since 9/11. But they were outraged when CEO Leo Mullin, who sacked 16,000 workers in two years, quietly created bankruptcy-proof pension schemes for 36 hand-picked executives, including himself.

Mullin bailed out last year when it was obvious the animosity toward him was so great that he couldn't rally his troops. He also pulled the ripcord on a $16 million golden parachute awarded by a pliant board of directors. Mullin's departing gift was an added insult to injury for Delta's workforce--and for its shareholders. Indeed, Leo Mullin was the airline industry's most recent poster boy for greed. His pay nearly doubled to $13.8 million annually during a period when the airline lost $1.8 billion. His greed triggered such a furor that Mullin agreed to a $9.1 million pay cut before his eventual departure.

Mullin's gone, of course, but Delta's still here for now and seems to be giving passengers their money's worth. I have to travel to Atlanta soon and Delta's discount rival, AirTran, quoted $300 roundtrip from San Francisco without an advance seat reservation and $400 if I wanted to choose a seat when I booked the ticket. Delta was $305 roundtrip on Orbitz.com and I nailed aisle seats on both legs. Only a complete bonehead would pass that up.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.