How Delta’s Focus on Customer Experience Turned a Bankrupt Airline Into a Powerhouse Brand

'Happy employees equal happier customers'

Courtesy of Delta

Airlines don’t exactly have the best reputations these days. Amid the seemingly constant flight delays and crowded terminals, some lament the lost “golden era of air travel” in the 1960s, when fliers dressed to the nines and ate in-flight meals on fine china.

Delta’s svp and CMO Tim Mapes, however, argues that the golden era of travel is now, and that the airline’s 80,000 employees are the key to keeping it that way.

“The flying experience is amazing,” he said. “You’re going 500 miles per hour, 35,000 feet off the ground, with Wi-Fi, and somebody brings you food and drinks. If you compare the ’50s or ’60s to today’s experience, there’s no comparison.”

The Atlanta-based airline’s marketing tenets rest on not only redefining the flight experience, but also on continuing its longstanding tradition of treating its employees well. The strategy is working: Eleven years after filing for bankruptcy in 2005, Delta recorded record profits in 2016 while receiving kudos from inside and outside the industry, landing on lists for customer affinity and best places to work.

Here’s how Delta built a powerhouse brand, and how its Atlanta roots have contributed to its success:

Sharing the love

Throughout its history, Delta has followed the adage that “happy employees equal happier customers.”

Delta has given its employees more than $1 billion in profit sharing payments to date, and its employees have returned the love: In 1982, when the company was hit with financial losses, they pitched in to buy the airline’s first Boeing 767, the Spirit of Delta, which is now housed in Delta’s Flight Museum on its sprawling headquarters adjacent to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Courtesy of Delta

When asked whether Delta’s taking a cue from other brands like Starbucks and Costco, who often grab headlines for offering exceptional employee benefits, Mapes instead points to the airline’s own history.

“I think we’re following Delta’s example,” he said. “Our founder had the mindset of, ‘We’re going to take better care of people, and when we do that, they’ll take better care of our customers.’ They’re well compensated, and we offer profit sharing because we don’t want them to worry about themselves; we want them to think about the customer.”

Delta landed on Glassdoor’s list of Best Places to Work in 2016 and 2017, and in December, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation named the company a Best Place to Work for LGBT equality. In 2017, Fortune ranked Delta the world’s Most Admired Airline, landing on the list for the sixth time in the past seven years.

The company’s new ad campaign credits its employees for the honor. The copy states, “Our people continue to make Delta different,” “Great service is about more than planes—it’s about people,” and, in a local spot, “Doing right by our employees so they do right for D.C.”

Southern hospitality

Mapes credits Delta’s Atlanta roots, in part, for its employees’ commitment to service.

“There’s no doubt that being Southern brings this airline an aura of hospitality,” he said. “Southern people are nice, they’re kind, they’re outgoing, and they’re well intentioned. It allows us to attract and draw from a group of people who have an ethos embedded in them from childhood that hospitality is a good thing.”

Delta got its start as Huff Daland Dusters, a small fleet of crop dusting planes, in Monroe, La., in the 1920s. In 1928, the company changed its name to Delta Air Service, with its first passenger flight in 1929 and its headquarters moving to Atlanta in 1941.

“There’s no doubt that being Southern brings this airline an aura of hospitality.”
-Tim Mapes, svp and CMO at Delta

Delta’s home base is, fortuitously, on the campus of Hartsfield-Jackson International, the world’s busiest airport for 18 years running, with 101 million passengers passing through in 2015, according to Airports Council International.

The city’s population growth and investments in the airport are fairly intertwined: Atlanta’s population was 1.3 million in 1960, and then-Mayor William Hartsfield authorized a $21 million upgrade to the airport in 1961. In 1980, Mayor Maynard Jackson led a $500 million airport upgrade, and in 2012, current Mayor Kasim Reed made a $1.4 billion investment. The Atlanta metropolitan area’s population today is a whopping 5.7 million.

“I can’t fathom how you could be an airline in an office tower in a downtown area when what’s really going on is out here, where the customers are,” Mapes said of the airport. “We’re over there quite a bit to tour the facility and talk to our staff about what we could be doing better. That’s where the insights lie, because they see it daily.”

Chris Rank, Rank Studios

Experience counts

Those insights play a huge role in Delta’s other major focus: improving the customer experience. Since it acquired Northwest Airlines in 2008, Delta has been on a mission to reinvent air travel, upgrading the in-flight experience with better food, craft beer and more movies on flights. In February, it introduced free in-flight meals in 10 domestic markets as part of its investment in improving the onboard experience.

“[The Northwest merger] was our opportunity to emerge from the pack of U.S. airlines, the legacy carriers, and differentiate Delta, not as a commodity, where a seat is a seat, but as a different experience, with levels of service that are different from our competitors,” Mapes said.

To do that, Delta combs through data from the 180 million customers that it serves each year, and from its own dedicated research. Delta uses heart rate monitors to track volunteer customers’ heartbeats at 11 stressful “moments of truth” during the travel experience, including looking for parking at the airport, going through security and boarding the plane. It looks for ways to improve the experience at each moment, like upgrading airport waiting areas and Wi-Fi, while studying and implementing line management tactics used by companies like Disney.

“The challenge is to make every customer feel like one in 180 million versus one of 180 million—how do we personalize and customize, and humanize, everyone’s particular experience?” Mapes said. “We respond in ways we think can make things better, and then listen again, to see if we can refine things.”

Delta’s tagline, “Keep Climbing,” is a testament to where he sees the brand going in the future. Its current ad campaign, “4 a.m.,” by Wieden + Kennedy, which salutes early risers who catch flights in the wee hours of the morning, is a reflection of that.

“It’s based on the notion of continuous improvement, that whatever we did yesterday, we’re going to try to do better tomorrow,” Mapes said. “The idea is that the people who are transforming the world are the ones who are eager to get out in it. It’s not about us—it’s about what’s going on at 4 a.m. that these people are going to deal with.”