Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Delta & Northwest:
Nothing Will Be The Same

Wistful is the adjective that best describes my feeling when the merger of Delta and NWA was announced this week. For me, it was akin to the sadness one feels when hearing that a dear old friend, long suffering from a terminal illness, has at last succumbed.

I expected it, of course. But as one of Cormac McCarthy's characters, an elderly gentleman, said in McCarthy's great novel, CITIES OF THE PLAIN, when asked what was the hardest lesson he'd learned in the world after eight-some years:

"Maybe it's just that when things are gone, they're gone. They aint comin back."

I know that as tattered and torn as customer service has become at both Delta and Northwest airlines in recent times, the merger will wreck what little remains of their once-proud identities and respective company ethos. And it isn't coming back. Nor will it be replaced with something better. New, maybe, but not improved. Delta's and Northwest's best days are behind them now.

After flying 5.2 million miles on Delta, and racking up a lesser but considerable number of miles on Northwest, I can confidently characterize both airlines' service, past and present. In the old days, the mid-seventies through the late eighties, Northwest Orient, as it was then called, and Delta had a solid reputation for good service on the ground and in the air. Both carriers were proud of their heritage and their service, and you knew it when you flew them.

People cared at both airlines. When you reached someone on the phone at a reservation center, they felt a strong bond with their employer, they were well-informed, and they were empowered to make discretionary decisions customized to fit your travel snag or situation.

When you approached a check-in counter at the airport, people smiled and welcomed you. They were imbued with a sense of self-confident professionalism, and they radiated appreciation for you as a customer and a person. They sincerely wanted to help you, and more often than not, they were able to and did.

The same professional pride was in evidence at the gates and on board the planes. You were treated with respect and dignity whether you were a regular weekly flier in the first class cabin or a first-time flier in a center seat in the back of the plane.

I remember being on many a Delta flight during the era when it was the choice of the stars: Jane Fonda gently brushing by me as we boarded at LAX for Atlanta; John McEnroe fidgeting in the first class galley; Maria Shriver sleeping across the aisle en route to Los Angeles; Ray Charles hugging the L.A. gate agent to thank him and then laughing as he boarded his flight; James Brown swaggering like a bantam rooster in the Newark Crown Room; Little Richard charming a pretty woman seated next to him; Minnie Pearl loudly insulting her husband in front of me all the way to Nashville; and wonderful Buddy Hackett seated next to me extolling the virtues of the Duke Rice Diet all the way to Raleigh.

When was the last time you saw a celebrity on board your Delta or Northwest flight? For me, it's been more than a decade.

I recall many a 747 ride in First Class in the Northwest Orient glory days before Business Class was invented en route to Tokyo or beyond, and to Amsterdam or Paris, when the service and personal attention to my comfort and well-being rivaled anything Singapore offers today. And, like Swissair, Northwest would call me after I'd arrived home to inquire about the experience and how it could be improved.

Nobody from Northwest or Delta phones me any more except for the dreaded robo-call: "Your flight to Detroit tomorrow has been cancelled. Contact a Northwest [or Delta] representative for rebooking. [CLICK.]" And good luck getting through, even on the elite lines.

Airline mergers have a long track record of going off the rails. When the dust finally settles in two or three or four years, the Delta widget will be hanging all over the place, but I fear the once-great customer service culture it heralded will have gone with the wind.

So, yes, I shed a tear or two this week. I've enjoyed the privilege of some mighty fine experiences on both Northwest and Delta. I respectfully salute the professionals who made those companies what they once were. But like Cormac McCarthy's old gentleman said, when it's gone, it's gone.

And it aint comin back.


Blogger Joshua Katt said...

Blame the Unions, all Unions.

They insist all employees be treated as equals when the rest of the unprotected world is a bell curve of the good, bad and indifferent.

The root of all labor evil.

4/19/2008 10:04 PM  

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