More Leadership Lessons from the Airline Industry – Delta Stubs Their Toe (Again)

More Leadership Lessons from Delta Airlines

In a recent post, we admonished Delta Airlines for the ill-conceived, confusing Delta Breezeway enacted in late 2007. It seemed that even months after its introduction, most Delta gate agents and Delta frequent fliers still had no idea how to use them.

We are proud to say that between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Delta gate agents suddenly began using the Delta Breezeway consistently across the seven different airports we used. (This is a record, to be sure, as any Delta gate outside of Atlanta or Cincinnati employed a different set of rules when using the Breezeway for the first ten months following its inception.)

Congratulations Delta for finally making sense of something so simple – of course, we still believe you could have rolled this out more intelligently; employing proper project management principles coupled with better education and training.

Delta Airlines – Not Sweating the Small Stuff

The debacle that was the Delta Breezeway reveals a lackadaisical attitude in the Delta boardroom for truly serving the customer. Delta simply doesn’t sweat the small stuff. In any normal leadership situation the ability to not sweat the small stuff is an admirable quality. Given the razor thin margins of the airline industry, it’s almost required that you sweat everything – especially the small stuff that impacts your customers.

Southwest Airlines (SWA) gets it. The SWA leadership has always been known as a group that plans everything from boarsding a plane to their overall business health. SWA gets it; and they generally get it right the first time.

As a disclaimer, it’s important to note that none of the AskTheManager editors enjoys flying on Southwest. Their cattle call style of assigning seats and loading planes might make logistical sense – and families with kids seem to be okay with it – but it is terrible for business fliers who travel for a living. That said, SWA is the healthiest airline in America and deserves to be studied by those who are struggling. (Hint for the other airlines: look at SWA’s leadership, and how the company tests and measures before they implement wholesale changes.)

You Cannot Test Ideas in the Boardroom

Southwest’s style of loading planes, as we wrote, has been a nuisance for business travelers – especially those who like to lounge before they fly. We must know we will have the aisle seat in the exit row and we don’t want to have to fight for it.

In the airline industry, unloading and loading planes quickly – faster than your rivals – earns you a competitive advantage. SWA gets this. They’ve made a conscience choice to forego most business travelers in return for better margins. That is their choice.

It’s old news, but Southwest experimented with assigned seating for about a year only to decide to slightly modify their 36-year old cattle drive in favor of a more orderly numbered seating system. (To read more about this decision, here’s a news story from September 2007.) No assigned seats, but with less of a cattle call. The leadership lesson for Delta is not that they should switch to a numbered system for assigning seats, rather that they should alter the way they enact changes at their struggling airline.

Last month – just days after Delta completed its merger with Northwest and proclaimed that there would be no immediate changes – Delta made an enormous change to the way everyone, including frequent fliers, gains access to premium seats (exit rows, most aisle seats and coach seats near the front of the aircraft). They adopted, without warning or testing, a system that we’ve been told was in place at Northwest. They wanted everyone to pay extra for those seats.

While we’re are certainly not opposed to Delta raising revenue in creative ways, we were absolutely shocked to learn that as frequent fliers we didn’t even have access to those seats until check-in. You see, Delta wanted to sell those seats at a premium to regular fliers, so they blocked frequent fliers from gaining access to those seats.

They clearly tested this concept only in the boardroom, and it passed with flying colors.

Oops, Time to Reverse another Bad Delta Decision

To their credit, Delta only made their coveted Platinum and Gold members suffer for a few weeks before they reversed this idiotic and untested change. We can only imagine the emails that flooded complaining of this policy (we know of a few sent by us that were not pleasant).

The moral of this story for all businesses is to follow the Southwest example. Even when the world was telling them for decades that their system for assigning seats should be altered, they resisted the temptation to enact wholesale changes and tested (for months, in controlled situations at just a few select locations) a new system before determining a course of action.

This is why Southwest has fared better than Delta and the other large airlines. The Delta leadership could learn a thing or two from Southwest.