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

'Happy employees equal happier customers'

Courtesy of Delta
Headshot of Christine Birkner

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

@ChristineBirkne Christine Birkner is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers marketing and advertising.