As inclement weather hits, Delta fails its customers due to organizational breakdowns

As inclement weather hit the New York and Eastern Seaboard earlier this month, the FAA issued a slowdown of all ground and air traffic in and out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport, resulting in hundreds of delayed and canceled flights set to depart that night. What followed was a textbook example showcasing the breakdown of operational and technical silos within an organization such as Delta. We all know nothing can be done about Mother Nature and her impact on air travel; however, how organizations such as Delta react will either magnify or alleviate situations like this. Unfortunately in the example we are sharing today, Delta’s breakdown magnified the issue… 

When the FAA ordered the slowdown of LaGuardia’s air traffic, Delta—at first—appeared to be the poster child for how an organization should be responding in times where situational slowdowns were out of their control. It started with Delta notifying their passengers of the slowdowns via an announcement within the terminal, followed by text messages, emails, and Delta mobile application notifications. They were quick to identify the source of the slowdown being the FAA and the weather’s unforeseen impact on the airport while promising to keep passengers updated on progress as it was made. At first, updates were coming fast and furious, with new statuses being made almost every 10 – 15 minutes… This impressed me as it seemed like Delta was working with real-time data to make their best possible indication of delays and new departure times. However, as time began to pass, it became apparent Delta was doing nothing more than pulling guesses out of thin air.

In reality, what we were witnessing was a systematic breakdown of the various silos within Delta. At first, it was communication with its passengers, as frequent departure updates became less frequent, conflicting, and past tense. After a while, Delta stopped screenshot_20190610-203903_fly-deltapushing updates via email and text altogether, only sticking with gate and mobile application updates… At this point, even the gate and mobile application had completely different departure times, and as time progressed, even those times were long gone with future updates ending up with the same fate…. It wasn’t uncommon to be looking at the mobile app with an estimated departure time that is 10 minutes earlier than the current time (Picture). This at first was clear indication that Delta did not have a cohesive communication strategy for times like this… But it did not stop there.

While waiting at the gate wondering when our flight would actually depart from LaGuardia, something interesting happened: a flight attendant ended up sitting next to me… The first thing I noticed is that Delta provides their staff a different version of their mobile application; this application gives them visibility into incoming flight statuses for aircrafts meant to service specific flights. In this case, her application clearly showed that our flight was inbound from Boston to LaGuardia with an ETA of 8:05pm while the gate notifications had our estimated departure time at 7:57pm… This was a first clear indicator that their own internal systems were not able to communicate between each other, as they clearly had our estimated departure time set before our incoming aircraft was even due to arrive. What even further compounded the issue was once our incoming aircraft finally made it to the gate, we were then notified that our pilots were actually on a completely different aircraft… These two incoming flights both had direct downstream impacts to our delayed flight, yet it seemed as if the team responsible for posting departure estimates had no insight whatsoever to this information. This begs the question: where were they getting this information from in the first place?

Delta’s failures didn’t stop there. Once the aircraft and crew were finally in alignment and passengers were able to board the plane, the waiting continued. At first it was 5 minutes, but then quickly became 10, 15, and then 20 minutes without movement from the gate or updates from the crew. Eventually, the pilots came over the intercom announcing that we were actually waiting on the aircraft to finish fueling and paperwork. This, again, was another breakdown of Delta’s systems as the plane had been sitting at the gate for more than 30 minutes before the crew arrived, and no one had the foresight to ensure proper preparation such as fueling the aircraft while waiting on the crew. This delay turned into another 50-minute delay before we were able to depart from the gate.

The lack of system communication within Delta not only made it frustrating to receive an accurate estimate of when our delayed fight was actually set to depart, but it had call center ramifications as well. That day, not only were flights delayed, but there were many cancelations … As passengers began to receive cancelation updates, they were quick to call Delta’s customer service to make alternate arrangements. For some, this turned into absolute disaster as people were being booked on new flights, and those flights were canceled minutes later in some cases, or passengers were finding that flights were full. In one case, there was a gentleman trying to make his way to Tennessee who was booked on three canceled flights…

What we were witnessing was a fundamental breakdown in Delta’s siloed systems which made it virtually impossible for the various components of Delta’s customer-facing business units to properly communicate internally and to customers, leading to an end result of frustrated customers and bruised brand reputation. When Mother Nature hits, almost nothing can control how the FAA will react and its impact to the airlines; however, the way the airlines react during this time can and will have a direct impact to overall customer experiences and brand reputation…. Let’s be realistic—we talked a lot about Delta, but they’re not alone, as many organizations struggle with the same siloed approach to how they do business, and as a direct result, they are slow to react when their customers are in times of need. Small businesses have an advantage as they are quick to make adjustments on the fly; however, even small businesses fail to recognize that they need to put proper systems and policies in place before situations like unplanned weather hit! As businesses, it is up to you to be proactive in times of need because customers will remember if you alleviated the situation or just made things worse.