I used to be one of Delta Air Lines' prized customers. When I would shop for travel, I would usually forego the popular airfare comparison shopping search engines like Kayak and Orbitz and Expedia and head straight for Delta.com.
It's not that I assumed I would always get the lowest fare with Delta. I just didn't care. I was loyal to Delta, even if I had to pay more for my tickets.
At the height of my Delta patronage, I probably spent at least $50,000 to $60,000 in one year alone (2012) on Delta tickets for myself and my company's clients. I easily achieved their top tier loyalty level, Diamond Medallion, and was even a member of their exclusive Delta Private Jets club.
But I also flew other airlines on occasion, and I came to realize that even non-elite customers on some of those other airlines -- especially certain non-American carriers -- were usually treated better, given more respect, and served more consistently than us uber-elite flyers on Delta.
This is not a problem unique to Delta, as most all other American air carriers struggle with service and quality issues as well, even in business and first class. In the most widely cited and respected rankings of the world's best airlines in service quality and product offerings, American carriers never even come close to making the top of the list anymore.
But Delta had it's chance to impress me, to keep me flying it's friendly skies, and to make sure those skies were consistently friendly. They weren't, and as a result I took my and my clients' frequent travel business elsewhere.
Two things about Delta's operations and culture played a big part in my decision to finally leave its loyalty program -- inconsistent service quality and mediocre product quality.
There are many great employees at Delta, but like any big public-facing bureaucracy there are also many not so good ones. But even if you run into the not so good ones only twenty or thirty percent of the time, that makes for a pretty frustrating overall experience for the frequent traveler. And if you are an infrequent traveler, getting stuck interacting with one of those bottom tier employees can leave a sour taste in your mouth for months or years.
This is a corporate cultural issue for Delta, and it's even a broader societal and cultural issue for the United States. The U.S. is having a harder and harder time offering truly superb customer service in the 21st century because too large a part of its service employee pool simply does not understand a 100 percent customer-focused work ethic, or it's simply too impatient and distracted to provide that level of service quality.
If you fly an air carrier like Lufthansa or Etihad or Singapore Airlines, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. The person-to-person service is consistent and superb. With Delta, I found too often that it was hit or miss. And when you have choice in where you take your business, you choose to take it to where it's consistently superb. Perhaps that's also why most American carriers are fighting so hard to deny Americans the ability to have foreign carriers serve them domestically (just google cabotage laws), or even internationally (just google Norwegian Air battle).
The second issue, mediocre product quality, is more of a mystery to me. It probably has a lot to do with the over regulated domestic airline market and the lack of competition, which translates into a lack of need to substantially improve products and service. Minor incremental improvements and an over reliance on self-proclamations of "superior" service and about "values" are the status quo stateside, but those claims only work on those who don't get to see what else is out there and what level of product and service Americans are being forced to miss out on in the air carrier space.
I still believe Delta is worth flying in a pinch, but it's certainly no longer my first choice nor an airline that commands my blind allegiance despite cost. That used to be the case, and it certainly can be again.
In this traveler's eyes, American air carriers generally, and Delta specifically, have slipped from atop the quality and service rankings. They have gone from diamonds to diamonds in the rough. And with a good bit of polishing, we may both one day be Diamonds again.