I’ve never met Richard Anderson, but I think he has a public relations problem. He appears on a certain video that’s played over and over. It’s supposed to be serious. But many in the audience laugh—at him. And when the company he heads promptly fails to deliver—well, that laughter quickly turns to anger.
Anderson is the CEO of Delta Air Lines. The world’s third-largest carrier is starting a war with Alaska Airlines. Much of the battle will be centered around Seattle, where Alaska is headquartered and has half the service in and out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Delta has about one-eighth.
If you fly Delta, you know Anderson. Displaying his CEO ego, he appears in a video at the start of each flight. He extolls the airline and its employees, who in my experience are among the more surly in the air. Given what they have been through, including a bankruptcy, I can’t say I really blame them.
And, of course, they work for Richard Anderson, the CEO since 2007. “We have to watch that video, too, every flight,” one Delta flight attendant groused to me recently. That was the first time I heard an airline employee openly bad-mouth the boss since the 1980s when Frank Lorenzo used union busting and bankruptcy to run Continental/Eastern/Frontier/PeopleExpress smack into the ground. Is it a coincidence that Anderson’s first job in aviation was as a lawyer for Continental in 1987, when Lorenzo was still in charge? (As it happened, Anderson joined Continental the very same year my lengthy cover article for Texas Monthly accurately predicted the downfall of the hated Lorenzo and his enterprise.)
From what I, New To Seattle, can tell, Alaska Airlines enjoys a good reputation among Seattleites for pleasant service and fair prices. To me, Delta’s persona is that of a predator. The company charges what the market will bear, screws passengers—it just announced adverse changes in its frequent flyer program—and uses old equipment.
From time to time, I fly Seattle-New York. That’s a route Delta is ginning up—using Boeing 757 jets some of which date back 20 years or more. To put it bluntly, these planes are a little long in the tooth.
My latest trip, Flight 443, returning to Seattle, was just last night. It overlapped the World Cup match between the U.S. and Ghana. I had figured I’d be able to watch the second half of the contest up in the sky.
The clunkers that Delta hopes to win the hearts and minds of Seattleites with don’t have live TV like, say, JetBlue. But there’s Wi-Fi, on which I could find a stream, right?
The Wi-Fi on my flight, for which I had paid Delta $14, didn’t work. It’s supposed to come on at 10,000 feet, but didn’t. Nor at 20,000 feet. Or 30,000 feet. Or at whatever height I reached. Even though the blue Wi-Fi sign remained lit above every single row on the plane for the duration of the flight.
The flight crew tried to reboot the system several times, to no avail. Finally, two hours into the 6½ hour flight, a flight attendant came onto the P.A. to say there would be no Wi-Fi for the rest of the trip.
That was not the only problem. The in-flight entertainment system showing movies and flight information kept crashing, and the rear galley also seemed to lose some power.
At some point around Richard Anderson’s big opening gig—I can’t remember if it was before or after—the video screen at each seat announced that Delta had some kind of a deal with Chelsea. That’s a major soccer team in England. Whatever the deal, it didn’t include allowing passengers on my flight to watch the soccer world’s top tournament.
This is the definition of irony. Maybe embarrassment, too.
Because of its size, Delta has some advantages in the Seattle market, most notably in international service. But when it comes to customer service, the contest doesn’t strike me as even close.
As always, I welcome comments below from anyone mentioned, or affected by the issues I raise.
It was only after landing at Sea-Tac that I learned from my cell phone that the U.S. beat Ghana 2-1, with a dramatic goal in the 86th minute–which other passengers and I would have been able to see and cheer on the plane had the Wi-Fi been working as advertised, or if Delta had JetBlue-style TV. This occasioned no small amount of grumbling at baggage claim in soccer-mad Seattle among customers whose business Delta is trying to win. They were upset about being among the very last persons on the planet to learn the U.S.-Ghana result.
But I already knew the score about Richard Anderson.