On a recent four-flight Delta Airlines itinerary RDU to Denver for the annual Rail-Volution transit conference, I opted to upgrade all the way.  It was a suit-and-tie business trip that also required traveling with my laptop, and I didn’t feel like schlepping a heavy roller bag plus my thick laptop bag four times back into the no-man’s-land of coach.  Relief from pain and stress, I thought, awaited me, with the certainty that I’d board first (well, after those needing “extra time”) and be comfortably seated and treated.

My expectations weren’t shattered, but I noticed for the first time in several years that Delta’s service was a bit wobbly.  Maybe I’ve been lucky, but it seems to me that Delta has done a reasonably good job since swallowing Northwest being on time and providing uniform service on the ground and in the aluminum tube. Knowing what to expect is important for my karma when flying.

I admit to being hyper-sensitive to small variances in the execution of any form of service after a 39 year career spent driving out inconsistencies from manufacturing and service processes while consulting for more than 100 clients, all Fortune 500 companies. Not to mention millions of miles in the air to get to their workplaces all over creation.

RDU/ATL

The RDU Sky Club was busy for a Saturday morning. I moseyed on down to the gate 45 minutes before flight time to be sure I was among the first in line.  Even in First Class, my bulkhead 1B seat meant I’d have to find overhead space for both my bags, and boarding first meant I’d get first dibs on that storage.

We boarded the MD90 on time (35 minutes before scheduled departure). Even with the usual full flight, plenty of time to get situated and to enjoy a pre-flight beverage in First Class.

When I checked the overhead compartment immediately above my seat, I was none too pleased to find a flight attendant had shoved her suitcase there, taking valuable space, but I still got my two bags stowed quickly on the other side of the aisle and sat quickly to allow others to board, my suit coat in hand.

The two Delta flight attendants up front had not greeted me or met my eye on boarding, but now I strained to get their attention to take my coat.  And to place a drink order.

Didn’t happen.  They were too busy chatting and acting silly with the cockpit crew, with the result that the entire First Class cabin was completely ignored until five minutes before departure. I had to gesticulate wildly to get my suit coat hung up, and when my seatmate asked for a cocktail, he was smugly rebuffed that it was “too close to departure” to serve anything.

Of course the young flight attendants had dawdled for a half hour doing nothing up to that moment, so their excuse for no service was an obvious lie and was heard throughout the small premium cabin.  The people around me murmured unhappily that they couldn’t even get a Coke Zero.  My seatmate grumbled that he had paid for First Class and was disappointed.

The front cabin crew might as well have brought drinks around late, because the flight was 10 minutes behind schedule pushing back (no reason obvious or given). Nonetheless, we arrived at our B concourse gate in Atlanta on time.  The one hour flight was almost as forgettable to me as I am sure we customers all were to the indifferent, self-centered cabin crew.  I had to wave frantically again as we taxied to the gate to get an FA to retrieve my jacket, a service that flight attendants have always politely performed in first class without having to be asked.

I was disappointed to discover that the ATL B25 Sky Club—long ago the Eastern Airlines Ionosphere Club—is closed.  A giant new Sky Club above the center of B has replaced it and the chronically-overcrowded B10 club as well. The new club’s staff carried out their duties perfunctorily, maintaining perfect poker faces.  If the Delta Sky Club desk folks were enthusiastic, they did a wonderful job that Saturday concealing their gaiety.

As I exited the club later, I glanced at the five people working the desk again and noticed the same dead expressions. Not exactly the picture of welcome or “Come fly with us!” or “Thank you for paying oodles of money to our company.” I wondered if they had just been given pink slips.

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Delta ATL B-concourse Sky Club staff was a glum bunch

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Delta ATL B-concourse Sky Club

ATL/DEN

Walking to my departure gate for my flight to Denver, I noticed the new (to me) boarding pedestals at some ATL gates for boarding.  Looks like Delta’s endgame could be no-staff, all-electronic self-boarding at gates. (Joe Brancatelli said UA is testing them at CLE, and that he had joked about them on Twitter. Only an airline consider signs on poles an “improvement.”)

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New Delta pedestal self-boarding – note Premium pedestal standing alone near gate door

Once at my gate, I dutifully lined up behind the Premium pedestal to board like a good little boy, number four in the First Class queue, and worried that I hadn’t been quick enough to get there and might not find any overhead space again in First Class (another MD90, and another bulkhead 1B seat).  The pedestals are somehow demeaning and ridiculous to me, mimicking a similar arrangement used for years at Southwest.  I don’t like those, either.  The process is dehumanizing.

I was also bummed that the inbound flight was still “deplaning” (Is that a real word?) when I arrived at the gate because that often signals a delay, and I was even more put out after an announcement that our plane had a mechanical that would precipitate an indeterminate delay. We were invited to sit.

But even with a First Class boarding pass, I dared not sit down, else risk losing my pathetic fourth place in line. Confirmed in First Class, but still stressed; I chuckled to myself for foolishly feeling so pitiful. Wearing leather business shoes (my colleagues call them “Board room shoes”) that are not comfortable for long walks or standing indefinitely, I groaned, then grinned, and tried to read to wait out the problem.

We got lucky: just a half hour delay. It was never explained what was broken, which nagged at me a bit (I hoped the wings were still intact), but I was glad to be boarding.  The gate staff had cheerfully kept us informed of the (usual) creeping delay (ten minutes, then another ten, etc.), and the agents didn’t make any snarky PAs like, “Mechanics have arrived with duct tape, and we should be underway shortly.”

However, the first class folks ahead of me in line had crammed their luggage into my overhead space atop seat 1B just as I feared, forcing me to again use the bins on the opposite side of the aisle.  When an ancient couple toddled aboard to seats 1C and 1D with four big pieces to put away, they were incensed that I’d had the temerity to take “their” storage.  No flight attendant came to help, so I found room over seats behind them and apologized, not attempting an explanation that overhead space is strictly first come, first served. They would not have understood.

At least the ATL/DEN cabin crew was a hoot. The lead FA kept us in stitches with his funny and upbeat announcements, and he came through during the late boarding process to apologize to everyone in First Class that no pre-flight beverages would be offered on account of the tardy flight.  He promised, instead, double drinks once in the air, and he wasn’t joking about that! He did, though, immediately whisk away my coat and hang it up. Once above the clouds, we also got a nice meal, much to my surprise.  All in all, the simple but sincere humanity demonstrated by this cabin crew restored my sense of general good will toward Delta en route to Denver

DEN/ATL

Going home to Raleigh from Denver, though, I encountered more gate agents uninterested in answering questions, but they did board the plane on time 35 minutes before departure.  Stepping through the doorway of the aircraft, I encountered—but was not greeted by—another set of apathetic flight attendants working the front “premium” cabin.

Young and chatty, the two FAs at the boarding door acted like paying customers were invisible as we boarded, and they ignored the First Class compartment completely while on the ground, even though, as in Raleigh on my first flight, there was plenty of time to serve drinks.  Once again the cabin crew did not take my suit jacket until after the door was closed. One First Class class passenger had to take his coat to them to get it hung.

I kept thinking, Why did I waste upgrades to witness such indifferent service and bad attitudes? The two flight attendants were unfriendly and lazy. They jabbered together laughing instead of coming through the cabin, wearing their indolence like a chevron for all to see.

Once in the air, drinks came quickly and with a smile that none in First Class could have taken as genuine, replacing the complacent faces and inaction at the gate. But the cold mood toward that crew was already calcified among First Class patrons. I was glad to leave the plane in Atlanta, karma jangled.

ATL/RDU  

When I selected a First Class seat on the Atlanta to Raleigh flight online, I had been delighted to discover that this was the 757 that made up the relatively new Raleigh-Paris (CDG) nonstop.  This would mean I could try out (for the hour it takes to fly between Atlanta and Raleigh) the Delta One international business class seats on the single-aisle aircraft.  I was definitely curious to test seat comfort and cabin ambiance.

With a tight connection, I double-timed it to the departure gate, arriving mere minutes before boarding was due to start, only to find no aircraft at gate A11.  Immediately, I knew we’d be late, and thought this was odd, since the plane is on the ground less than 90 minutes at RDU before its scheduled departure to Charles de Gaulle. Looked like the RDU/CDG flight could be late as well, I thought.

The gate agent told me in a very upbeat manner that the aircraft was to be ferried over from the hangar and was due “any minute—no worries!”  She assured me our flight wouldn’t be late.  I knew she was either woefully ignorant or dissembling.  No matter, the effect was still the same: another chink in Delta service.

That particular agent was soon relieved by another woman possessed of a far more sour demeanor. She evidenced a great fondness for her P.A. microphone, making me think she might have been missed her calling as a late night boozy lounge singer. Again and again the agent repeated the news—plain as day to anyone who cared to look out the picture window behind her—that the plane was not there but soon would be.  “It’s almost here,” she dourly said, over and over.

But it wasn’t almost there. The plane was finally wheeled up over a half hour behind schedule, after which the cockpit and cabin crews had to be rounded up (they has wandered off from the gate) before boarding could commence.  The gate agent continued her squealing P.A. announcements, adoringly gasping the mike with both hands, as if she was about to belt out a tune.  I didn’t enjoy any of it, and my feet hurt as I stood (first in line this time) waiting to clamber on board.

First down the Jetway when at last boarding began, I turned left at the corner from the boarding door of the 757 in eager anticipation of experiencing the international business class cabin. But when it came into my field of view, a feeling of disharmony overwhelmed me.  The cabin’s over-sized sleeper seats in a 2-2 configuration were angled in toward the windows.  I flashed on a living room with far too much furniture. The atmosphere bordered on claustrophobic, and it was difficult to get down the narrow aisle and to get wedged into the seats. I had chosen 4A (window, back row), but as I shoved myself into it, I regretted it wasn’t an aisle, which would have been less confining than the window seats.  One plus: three windows on my side.

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Though late, the flight was comfortable and service okay. I couldn’t do much except sit in that tight space with the seat walls and dividers towering all around me, like being in a very narrow mountain valley.

Due to the crucial need to turn the aircraft to board for Paris soon after arrival, I expected a sense of urgency when our late flight reached the RDU gate, but once again, Delta surprised me with a glitch: no ramp guys to guide us in.  We waited another five minutes at RDU Gate C1 for ramp personnel, who weren’t moving too fast when they finally clustered in formation.  By then I knew the poor folks headed to Paris that day were going to be pretty late boarding, and I was happy to put my back to Delta for a while.

Perhaps I am being too picky.  But I do have fifty-seven years of flying behind me, and I have lived through the decline and steep fall of airlines like United.  I noticed the same small service faults occurring at those carriers before the plunge into service hell. I never expected Delta to be perfect (or any carrier), and I hope these experiences were just bad luck on my part.  But so many little things going wrong at once is not a good signal.

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