Leadership Lessons from the Airline Industry – Delta Bats .500

Leadership Lessons from Delta Air Lines


The editors of AskTheManager fly virtually every airline that caters to business travelers (i.e., the big ones), but we really seem to love Delta for some reason.


Delta is not always the cheapest, the friendliest or even the most convenient, but as one of the editors stated so ineloquently, “Delta is the tallest midget in the room.”


Delta made two changes in late 2007/early 2008 that provide great lessons in leadership. One was a terrific move and the other, not so much. (It’s important to note that more often than not, you can learn more from a poor leadership example than from a good one.)


Delta – A Swing And A Miss


We’ll start with the lesson where Delta stubbed their toe. If you’ve flown Delta in the last eight months, you’ve probably noticed the red signs on long stands that detail the Delta “Breezeway.” (As a Delta Platinum flyer, TheManager is on a Delta flight every week.)


These signs designate that one side is meant for the loading of travelers who are members of their mileage program (Delta SkyMiles) and one side is designated for everyone else. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong.


Although it has been more than 250 days since Delta launched their Breezeway program, gate agents at virtually every airport apply their own rules to the Delta Breezeway. (Perhaps, they would all benefit from reading the Delta press release that attempts to explain the Breezeway. You can read that article by clicking here. If you work for Delta, I beg you to read it.)


The confusion that frequent travelers relay to me when I’m flying is all the same, “I’m not sure when I’m supposed to use it. In some airports they have the Breezeway open when they call for First Class, in others, they still tell you to wait for your zone.”


So Where’s The Leadership Lesson?


It seems that the Breezeway was an idea cooked up at the Atlanta headquarters and that all of the resources for the project went toward printing and mounting the great “Breezeway” signage in all of the airports. Perhaps Delta could have rolled this out more slowly and used some of their budget to educate the gate attendants in each city on the proper use of the Breezeway.


Flight attendants have confidentially told me that more passengers complain about varying Breezeway rules than anything else – and this is eight months after the rollout.


While consistency has improved slightly since its inception, Delta management stubbed their collective toes big time on this one. Instead of making the breezeway something that would attract more frequent flyers as a value add, they alienated most of us as we and the Delta front line employees scratched our heads over what in the heck the Breezeway stood for.


But Delta Management Did Something Good Too, Right?


Oh yes, Delta management hit a home run in 2008 with the release of their new safety video. A safety video? Yes, a safety video.


Instead of trying to be as stale as the peanuts on other airlines, some genius in Delta management understood THE GOAL of the safety video. (Of course, all of you know the goal is to make sure that we all get to our destination safely, though it seemed airlines assumed the goal of the safety video was to put the passengers to sleep so that they don’t want the free soft drinks and coffee.)


The guy or gal at Delta who dreamed up their new safety video has done something that no other airline has ever accomplished – they succeeded in getting more than 75% of the passengers to watch the entire thing.


For full disclosure, it is important to note that since the new video was released, I’ve seen it more than 30 times and I’ve watched it end to end every time. I, like my fellow passengers, am mesmerized by it.


The lesson here is this: let’s all stop doing things for the sake of doing them, and let’s understand WHY we’re doing them in the first place. Delta did just that with their new video and it worked – people are watching and paying attention. If you don’t believe me, check it out for yourself:



By the way, all of the uniformed crew members in the video are reportedly Delta employees, including the luscious lead flight attendant and the little guy with the shiny teeth.