Delta Blues

Chronic delays, bumpy rides, indifferent service. One year after Delta’s takeover of the hometown airline, are we worse off now than we were with Northwest?

From the advent of flying until just last year, Minnesotans largely flew with one airline: Northwest. Minnesotans loved all the non-stop flights, but hated that NWA was pretty much the only game in town. So when the hometown boys merged with Delta Airlines, sealing the deal a year ago this month, hopes were high: Perhaps we could keep our hub status while a cash infusion took the sting out of NWA’s famous stinginess. ¶ It’s now apparent that the merger was a takeover. Northwest’s red tails were painted over with Delta blue. Northwest executives were shipped off to Delta HQ in Atlanta, where former NWA chief Richard Anderson is now Delta’s CEO, known affectionately among employees as Big Daddy. Delta’s policies are now predominant. Like it or not, we’re a Delta town. ¶ Last October, Delta announced that, despite the ongoing recession, it had made nearly a billion dollars in the previous quarter, its largest profit in years. A week later, U.S. News & World Report released a detailed analysis of airline quality and concluded that Delta was the worst large carrier in the country—a stigma that Northwest, even in its darkest days, never carried. Somewhere in between those two announcements lies the truth for Minnesotans: Are we better served by a more profitable carrier? Or, in launching the world’s largest airline, have we been left at the gate? Here, a comparison of Delta and Northwest reveals what we’ve gained or lost.


Getting Away

Northwest was notorious for its unabashed attempts to kill competing flights from the Twin Cities, lowering fares until the offending airline gave up. Since Delta took over, competition has grown at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport. Competing carriers (notably Southwest) have added more routes of their own while Delta has cut back on flights to ensure fuller planes (Northwest sometimes flew half-empty planes). Delta now accounts for a significantly smaller share of overall MSP traffic than Northwest did. Of course, the increased competition may have more to do with Delta’s neglect than benevolence; MSP, as a hub, means less to the Atlanta-based airline. And the competition generally hasn’t led to lower fares (domestic fares across the country leaped 16 to 20 percent in 2010). But, if you’re heading to, say, Chicago or New York, you’ve now got more options.

Being Bumped

When you’re bumped from a flight because it was oversold, you’re said in airline-speak to be “involuntarily denied boarding.” Mostly, you’re ticked—and soon to be very, very late. In 2009, Delta and Northwest provided a stark contrast as Delta bumped roughly 11 of every 100,000 passengers, Northwest just half as many.

During the first nine months of 2010 (the most recent period for which records are available), Delta markedly improved, more than halving their 2009 average—better than NWA . But don’t get too comfortable: Delta’s two-year average is still worse than Northwest’s over its final two years. Feeling lucky enough to play Delta roulette?

Left Behind

The only thing worse than a late flight is one that doesn’t leave at all. And among the major airlines, only American cancelled more flights as a percentage of its total than Delta in the first nine months of last year. (Hint: If you want to be sure to get where you’re going, it helps to live in Honolulu—Hawaiian Airlines almost never cancels.)

But Delta’s propensity for canceling may not be systemic. Delta also frequently tops the list of airlines with flights canceled five percent of the time or more—which means that a few chronically canceled flights may be making Delta look worse than it is. And it’s a safe bet that those bad apples are flying (or not flying) out of Atlanta: In recent years, only Chicago’s O’Hare Airport has had more cancellations than Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Delta’s hub. Not coincidentally, they’re the two busiest airports in the country.

That said, few airlines have as bad a reputation for canceling as Northwest did. There was the strike in the 1990s, of course. And during the summer of 2007, crew shortages led to 850 canceled flights in one week alone. It got so bad that during a few days in July about one of every eight flights was canceled. Delta may be bad, but at least it’s predictably bad—with Northwest, you sometimes couldn’t be sure your plane was leaving until you were in the air.

Flying Standby

Not so long ago, if you scooted through airline security faster than you expected, or a speedy taxi dropped you at the airport sooner than necessary, a thoughtful Northwest agent might offer to put you on an earlier flight; with a smile, and without a charge.

With Delta, that nicety will cost you $50 (unless you’re a Gold, Platinum, or Diamond–level frequent flyer). Of course, that has become the standard fee throughout the industry. But, as Delta is notorious for overselling flights, you don’t stand a great chance of getting onto a different flight anyway. Bring a good book and wait

Forking over Fees

You know the new drill: Want a blanket? Five bucks, please. A sandwich? Better to go hungry. Yes, mired in bankruptcy, airlines realized a few years ago that there was money to be made off Americans’ bad habits: We’re poor planners, we love our stuff, and we love to take it with us. And no major airline has been as exploitative as Delta, which raked in nearly $217 million in the first quarter of last year—just in baggage fees.
In fact, Delta led the charge among airlines last January to raise baggage fees and now makes more money off extra fees as a percentage of its revenue than any other major airline—almost 10 percent. Which means if you’re planning a trip to go somewhere warm this winter, it will likely eat a bigger chunk of your travel budget if you fly there on Delta.

Northwest, on the other hand, was less rapacious. In its final months, it pulled in just 5.9 percent of its revenue from extra fees. If Minnesotans are wearing teenier swimsuits on vacation this winter—or nothing at all—now you know why.

Southern Hospitality


Northwest employees’ first clue that things were going to be different after the merger was the Delta handbook they were given. A slim, spiral-bound manual, it simplistically implores employees to “always fly safe,” “produce great customer service,” and embrace the “Delta family.” “It’s second-grade bullshit,” says one Northwest veteran. “It’s insulting. We’re not flying crop-dusters.”

Among the effects of the merger has been a culture clash between Northwest employees, accustomed to a Midwestern work ethic, and their Atlanta bosses, steeped in a Southern business style seen by some NWA veterans as paternalistic and inefficient. They cite the fact that Delta stripped NWA flight attendants of their log books, where they had noted things like ovens that needed work. Instead, they must now inform the pilots, who are often too busy flying to care. Delta’s ongoing acquisition of used MD-90s—flown by no other major American airline (the primary users have been in Saudi Arabia and China)—has also disappointed former NWA employees. In some MD-90s, Delta ripped out the mid-cabin galley to squeeze in more seats, such that more flight attendants must now use the first-class galley, creating havoc where you least want it.

Delta’s approach, buoyed by rising fares, has so far made money. But the changes “are a huge step back,” says a 31-year NWA vet. “It’s like the Flintstones took over the Jetsons.”




Lounging Around

Northwest had the usual array of frequent-flyer perks—special deals, special lounges, occasional upgrades. But arguably no airline rewards its loyal travelers like Delta.

For the average slob, Delta’s frequent-flyer program may be devilishly difficult to take advantage of—don’t even think about trying to use miles to get to Paris or Amsterdam. But if you’re at least silver status, you stand a terrific chance of not only using miles to get where you’re going but also getting upgraded to first class whenever a seat is available. And once you’re in first-class, there may be no better airline to be flying with: Last year, Delta announced that it’s installing new full-flat beds on more than 90 aircraft.

Its airport lounges, called Delta Sky Clubs, were recently expanded to 50 airports around the world as part of Delta’s $2 billion investment in improved facilities. Offering complimentary drinks, snacks, and the usual Wi-Fi and workstation gizmos, they’re sleek enough to pass for nightclubs, only far quieter. And, as of last year, they’re not just limited to exclusive members—anyone with a flight-miles card and $25 can get in.

All told, there are good reasons why both Business Traveler and Executive Travel magazines have given Delta props for having the best frequent-flyer program, best airport lounge, and best first-class service.

Stuck on the Tarmac

It’s every passenger’s nightmare: sitting on the plane, sometimes for hours, while waiting to take off. Of course, last year the government acted to limit tarmac delays: Airlines must keep them under three hours or risk high fines. But Delta still shows up almost monthly on the government’s spreadsheet of shame listing flights with tarmac delays of two hours or more. In 2009, Delta received an ignominious honor from—the When You Are On the Ground They Treat You Like Dirt Award—for such lengthy tarmac delays. Delta has attributed many of the delays to issues related to merging Northwest’s fleet with its own. But former Northwest employees say part of the problem may be Delta’s way of calculating weight distribution on its planes. Northwest had sophisticated systems for this; now passengers may sit for hours while the numbers are crunched and cargo is pushed around.


Hold Onto Your Stuff

You arrive, your luggage does not. The good news is that this is happening far less than it used to—largely because cash-strapped airlines can’t afford to make such costly mistakes anymore. The bad news for Minnesotans is that Delta has long had a much harder time connecting you with your bag than Northwest did.

In 2006, one of the last truly awful years for mishandled luggage, Delta was screwing up nearly 10 bags per 1,000 passengers—placing last among major airlines—while Northwest was losing only about half as many, placing second-best. Yet even as the number of misplaced bags dropped over the years, the airlines’ rankings remained the same. Through the first nine months of 2010, Delta was still losing track of far more luggage, as a percentage, than Northwest did in its final year.

Flight Delays

Long ago, some wag turned Delta’s name into an acronym: Doesn’t Ever Leave The Airport. In fact, there are now coffee mugs (available from, a Facebook page, and Twitter updates bearing this acronym. Sadly, there’s some truth behind the snark.

In 2009, Delta’s on-time percentage was 78.6—not great, but not the cellar. For the first nine months of 2010, it was 77.8, dead last among major carriers. That said, Northwest had a horrible year in 2008, with a 76.8 on-time percentage, though it was pretty good in its final year: 79.2. Averaged together, that’s about the same as Delta’s past two years.

In any case, the trend isn’t good for the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport. In the first nine months of 2009, MSP was an overachiever, ranking seventh among major airports in on-time departures. In the same period of 2010, it slid to 18th place. Can’t blame the full-body scanners for that.

Turbulence Troubles

Northwest, back when it was Northwest Orient, had some tough sledding on its signature routes to Alaska and Japan, passing over turbulence-prone mountain regions. So in 1957, it pioneered the first turbulence forecasting system and, in later years, provided this technology to other airlines.

Apparently Delta was not among them. Last spring, a Delta flight attendant broke her back due to turbulence. Last fall, unexpected turbulence on a Delta flight knocked passengers’ heads against overhead bins. Under NWA, flight crews received turbulence maps before take-off; route changes due to forecasted turbulence were pre-planned. That sophistication ended when Delta took over, as pilots now get turbulence information in-flight from pilots flying ahead of them—sometimes too late to avoid trouble.

Flying aficionados have compared the flight paths taken by NWA and now by Delta between the same cities. NWA would lay low for much longer after taking off and give wide berth to turbulent trouble spots, sacrificing some fuel for a smoother ride. Delta appears to gain altitude more quickly and varies little from its routes, leaving you shaken and stirred.

Stowing the Stradivarius

Perhaps no Minnesotans were more wary of Delta’s takeover than musicians. Flying with instruments has always been a hassle, and after years of wrangling with Northwest over instrument rules, local musicians were just getting used to relatively smooth travels. Then Delta came along. If you want to rile a musician—anywhere in the country—mention Delta. So many musicians have had trouble with the airline that, in 2007, the American Federation of Musicians (the world’s largest musicians’ union) organized a boycott of Delta. The airline changed some rules, and the boycott ended. But musicians with the Minnesota Orchestra have learned to bring the airline’s own rules regarding instruments to the gate with them in case they’re hassled. Even then, accommodation sometimes depends upon finding a helpful attendant.

Flying with Fluffy

Northwest had a relatively sophisticated and flexible system for flying pets: They were allowed as cargo anytime, depending on the daily outside temperature—it simply had to be below 85 and above 10. Delta, like many other airlines, has a blanket policy: no pets at all between May 15 and September 15, unless the kennel is small enough to fit under a seat. Plan Fluffy’s jaunts accordingly.


Complaints Department

There’s no nice way to say this: Delta pisses people off. They’ve pissed off more people over the years than some airlines have flown, and there are now a number of websites (Delta Sucks, Delta Airlines Sucks, Delta Really Sucks) dedicated to chronicling the complaints.

Every Minnesotan who muttered “Northworst” should take a gander at these tallies: In 2008 and 2009, Northwest averaged one complaint per 100,000 passengers; Delta had twice as many. In the first nine months of 2010, Delta did even worse, racking up 2.2 complaints per 100,000 passengers—the most not just among major carriers but all U.S. airlines ranked by the government. Compare that to just .27 for goody-two-shoes Southwest Airlines.

The well-regarded annual Airline Quality Ratings Report, compiled by Purdue and Wichita State University, ranked Northwest fourth-best among 18 airlines in both 2009 and 2010 (covering the previous year). Delta went from 12th to 15th—good for last place among major carriers.

Perhaps Delta has finally become too big for its own good—or its Atlanta hub has. That airport is a kind of Bermuda Triangle for fliers: At some hours of the day, your flight may have a 50-50 chance of departing on time. A couple of years ago, when J.D. Powers named the five least-aggravating airports in the country, two Northwest hubs were at the top: Detroit-Wayne County and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Who knew how nice we had it?

For more on the status of Minnesota airlines, read “Grounded” and “Remembering the Red Tails.”