A World That Hates Airlines Doesn’t Hate Delta, Thanks in Part to This Marketer

Adweek’s 2015 Brand Genius winner for travel

In recent years, airlines have become a staple on those lists of things Americans love to hate. Search for any airline on Twitter and you are guaranteed to find the usual griping about late flights, missed connections and tiny, uncomfortable seats in coach. According to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, in fact, airlines are among the most despised businesses in the country.

Don't tell that to Delta Air Lines. Last year, the carrier publicly pledged to reinvent air travel, a category that had become overrun with added fees for everything shy of a trip to the restroom. As fuel prices dropped and the number of air travelers soared, airlines, it seems, had no particular incentive to improve the onboard experience. But that's just when Delta decided it was time to make the airline experience civilized again. With its "Up" spot, via Wieden + Kennedy, Delta let American consumers know that it was "raising the bar on flying."

Taking the yoke of the initiative was marketing svp Tim Mapes, who explains that the improvements weren't a result of some in-depth study but rather simply listening to what flyers wanted—"not listening generically," he says, "but listening with the intent to act."

Mapes' efforts began with small but significant improvements in the onboard experience. Along with interior upgrades, Delta introduced new entertainment options like hit Hollywood movies and video games free of charge. Passengers traveling on short-haul runs started noticing their favorite local craft beers on the menu. In fact, all the food got better. Partnering with fresh-cuisine purveyor Luvo, Delta rolled out a new menu in economy class and also expanded its wine list.

Noticing the improved fare in coach, The Economist noted, "Delta is adopting a strategy that is different from the rest of the industry."

Mapes sees Delta's brand overhaul as the sum of its parts—a bunch of little things done right.

"It's making the website faster, it's making the service levels warmer, it's becoming more innovative than people expect U.S. airlines to be," he says. "Some of that is creative risk taking, some of that is pushing the boundaries of challenging the status quo, but ultimately it's just committing fully to making things better."

But perhaps Mapes' most ambitious innovation is something called Innovation Class. In that program, the airline arranged to keep empty seats beside a number of thought leaders in business, art and technology. By applying through Delta's LinkedIn page, passengers eager to spend time talking shop with these individuals during their flights got a chance for the coveted seats. Delta called it "a mentoring program at 35,000 feet."

Eventually, even nonfliers got wind of the changes at Delta. In May, the company introduced a new preflight safety video starring YouTube's 25 biggest personalities, including Keyboard Cat and Annoying Orange, as well as the double rainbow guy. Even as it met all FAA guidelines, the video ("the best thing to happen to the Internet since the cloud," says the company) went viral, logging more than 9 million views.

The efforts of Mapes and his team have gone neither unrewarded (Delta made a $4.5 billion profit last year) nor unnoticed. Delta made Fortune's 2015 list of the 50 most admired companies and also landed the top slot on Business Travel News' annual airline survey for the fourth consecutive year, an unprecedented achievement for an airline. Wichita State University's 2015 Airline Quality Rating placed Delta in the top three of all airlines.

Wieden + Kennedy's "Keep Climbing" campaign set a standard for continuous improvement. For Mapes, it's all pretty simple. "We wanted to build a better airline," he says. 

This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.