Leadership lessons from the Headlines: Delta Airlines and its Frequent Flyers

Delta at ATL

©2012 Terry Linhart. All rights reserved.

Flying isn’t as fun as it once was.  It’s much safer, so I guess that fits into the ever-widening category of what we call “fun,” but flying now more like a stinky commuter train and less like a snazzy cruise ship.  Everyone is pressed: Customers into the smallest areas, employees by stressful jobs and average pay, and supervisors under the pressure of keeping the system running on time and budget.  Yet more people are flying than ever before, a number which will double in the next 20 years at the same time that customer satisfaction continues to decline.  And you can see why as airports dehumanize the experience and when customer comfort experience isn’t a priority.

Given the positive forecast for future growth, some airline is going to take a risk and make three steps:

  1. Create an airline in-flight experience that is special.
  2. Make sure their employees treat customers well and consistently so.
  3. Develop a frequent flyer program that is superior to the rest of the industry to create a large tribe of loyal members.

If an airline does that, it will be able to charge a bit more on each route, pay their employees more, and people will still fly it because of the experience.  I may be wrong, but I think I’m right.

As it is now, each major carrier seems to be making moves to tick off its most loyal customers and Delta Airlines is now no exception.  For the loyal frequent flyer, the new Medallion frequent flyer program offered a lot of positives and the general sense I got from other frequent flyers was that it was the airline of choice for domestic flying unless you lived near a hub of another carrier (i.e. Dallas, Charlotte, Chicago).  Crews have become consistently friendlier and Kelly and I can’t recall a Delta flight where we had a bad experience.

Delta made some changes to its frequent flyer program that are baffling. And confusing.  Some would say “troubling” but I guess they are moving to a revenue-based system, which makes sense, so I’ll wait and see.  The changes have caused a lot of discussion, and some strong reaction from Delta’s most loyal customers.  The situation exposes three leadership lessons worth noting and applying to our own work in other fields.

Delta’s changes provides three lessons for leaders to learn:

1.  Be careful that your “bottom line” isn’t too obvious … or too much of your focus.  A quick analysis of Delta’s changes to the program show that it’s all about money spent … and money made.  Mostly.  In all sorts of leadership arenas, including churches, there is a bottom line.  It may be numbers of youth attending a particular group or event, number of sales, who is coming, or how many people follow you or read your blog (though I would argue that this isn’t leadership).

I remember speaking with a man who had attended church on and off and he was currently in one of his “off” cycles.  He wanted to grow in his spiritual life but he felt like churches were not interested in him, they just wanted to “convert” him … and then they’d move on to another customer.  Whether true or not, it was his perception and it’s one that doesn’t reflect how church functioned as a community in the book of Acts.

2.  Don’t forget to make following you or working for you special.  The airline industry, and our culture in general, has made travel less about the journey and more about “just getting there.”  What if our leadership was the same, where we failed to enjoy those in our group, appreciate them as people, and instead just focused on the task?  Would people care when we left our positions or would they look forward to a refreshing change?  What can you do this week to make your people feel valued and understood.  What if an airline made their customers’ experience, comfort, and special treatment their focus?  (And, really, maybe we say want that but prefer cheaper airfares with less service).

3.  Do your research before making changes.  Since the bottom line, revenue earning, apparently drove Delta’s decision, I am not sure if customer research would’ve mattered.  Delta says they spoke with hundreds of customers and it’s obvious that they are comfortable with some of their lower-level loyal customers seeking other airlines.  Whatever happened, the process is another reminder of how important it is for leaders to understand the change process and develop that necessary intuition of how to lead change. I’m excited to read Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard in the coming weeks (thanks for the recommendation Jon Swanson) and would recommend it to you as well.

We’ll see where the Delta switch ends up. I think it’s there to stay, but it won’t be without some customer casualties.  My guess is that it could’ve been rolled out differently, and gradually, and explained better so there wouldn’t have been such a strong reaction from the most loyal of Delta followers.  The old leadership axiom is that it’s not often what you say, but how you say it that communicates the real meaning.