Sunday, February 14, 1999

Latest Delta decisions cause passenger turbulence

Surcharge had to be withdrawn

The Washington Post

        WASHINGTON — Delta Air Lines Inc. has been flying into some rough public relations weather.

        The nation's third largest air carrier has announced a series of small pricing shifts and food cutbacks that individually might seem like a few storm clouds, but altogether have resulted in the marketing equivalent of wind shear.

        The problems started last month when Delta became the first — and only — airline to require that customers pay a $2 surcharge for roundtrip tickets they did not buy through Delta's Web site.

        A Delta official suggested fliers who don't have Internet access could “go to the library and use their computers.”

        Customers went ballistic instead, blanketing the Atlanta airline with angry phone calls, an airline spokesman said. Delta reversed itself a few days later and withdrew the fee.

        That should have been the end of the matter.

        Then Delta admitted last week that customers who bought nonrefundable tickets during the brief surcharge period would only get their $2 back if they paid a standard $75 fee for changing a ticket.

        “We all had a great laugh at that here,” said Doris Davidoff, the vice president of Belair/Empress Travel and Cruise in Bowie, Md. “It just shows an incredible arrogance on the part of Delta.”

        But could it really cost $75 to receive a $2 refund?

        “Absolutely correct,” said Delta spokesman Todd Clay, who called the surcharge issue “ancient history” and said he didn't understand all the fuss.

        He draws this analogy If a grocery shopper bought a loaf of bread one week, and the price dropped the next week, would the customer expect the market to refund the difference?

        “This follows our normal procedure,” he said.

        Mr. Clay said Delta, which operates its second-largest hub at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, aborted its ticket surcharge in response to customer complaints.

        “The marketplace spoke to us,” he said. “It's like when Coke changed their formula, the customers spoke, and they withdrew it. Or when that poison Tylenol thing happened.”

        Meanwhile, Delta said this week it was eliminating sandwiches from its popular SkyDeli bags. The airline replaced the sandwiches with crackers and cheese, or carrots and dip. The food cutback would save Delta $14 million a year, the airline said.

        David Letterman joked about it. In all, not a good run of attention for Delta, which posted a $1 billion profit last year.

        “We make adjustments like this all the time,” Dan Lewis, another Delta spokesman, said, speaking on the food cutback.

        He said that while coach passengers will lose their sandwiches, business-class passengers will soon see an upgrade in their in-flight fare.


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