Recently, I spent a few hours visiting Delta Air Lines’ headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. As a little background, my first contact with the social media folks at Delta was well over a year ago, and at that time, I was invited out for a visit. Not until now, have I been able to make it happen. Of course, living in Atlanta makes a difference! In any event, I jumped at the opportunity to drop by and chat with corporate communications folks at the world’s second largest airline when I had the chance this time.

Modern Media and Being Social

The afternoon began with lunch in the employee cafeteria. While much like any other employee cafeteria in any other office in America, I was immediately struck by one thing, energy. Seriously, the place was not only packed, it was jumping, with people that looked like they didn’t mind being at work. There was a certain vibrancy about the environment that I found to be kind of fun. The lunch conversation, with managers from Corporate Communications was informative. I’ve always been intrigued (impressed even) by Delta’s embracing of new media, and especially, Twitter. I came away with the impression that certain people at Delta were well aware of the power of new media, and they wanted their airline to be a part of the conversation. So they made their case, and senior management bought in. I think they’ve been well served by this approach.

Delta has been very innovative in its social media efforts, even investing in what they refer to internally as a Social Media Lab. It is here where Delta manages its outreach efforts across all platforms like its blog, Facebook, and Twitter. The lab is equipped with modern tools that enable Delta to monitor what I refer to as “modern media” in real time, ranging from standard news and weather feeds to social media management tools. These tools allow Delta to participate in “the conversation” in an age when all customers need to do to vent is reach into their pockets for their smartphones and send a Tweet.

This was all extremely interesting to me, but the highlight of the visit to the lab was the opportunity to say hello the folks that operate @DeltaAssist, a Delta traveler’s best friend in my opinion. To my knowledge, no other U.S. airline has invested in the capability to provide real customer service through Twitter. The representatives at @DeltaAssist are all experienced reservations agents that must apply to work there. That experience shows. Fortunately, most of my Delta flights operate as intended, but when things happen, it’s nice to know that experienced and empowered assistance is as close as my iPhone.

An Airline to Run

With all the talk about new media, Twitter, and Facebook, it might be easy to forget that we are talking about an airline with 700 jets flying all over the world. Of course, there are thousands of pilots, flight attendants, maintenance technicians, ramp service employees and agents keeping those jets on the move everyday. But at the heart of the airline is the Operations Control Center (OCC). Part of my visit included a tour of the OCC, a space that resembles something like Space Shuttle Mission Control with large screens providing news, weather, and air traffic information. The center houses flight dispatch, meteorology, maintenance control and other operations functions which work together to manage Delta’s approximately 2,000 daily flights.

About SkyMiles

I was asked what I thought Delta did right, and I had plenty of positive things to say. I think Delta is a great airline and I didn’t mind sharing this thought with the managers I met with. I told them that I thought Delta’s frontline people were uniformly good, their airplanes were clean, and their onboard product modern and comfortable. The widespread availability of inflight wi-fi is a big deal for me, and many others I know. At the airport, Delta’s facilities are quite nice, JFK excepted (and acknowledged by the folks I met with as less than optimal), and the investments in Delta’s SkyClub product are noticeable.

On the other hand, I could not leave without saying something about Sky Miles, specifically, the redemption of those miles for travel. Now, I actually think Delta’s frequent flier elite program, Medallion, is competitive for an almost purely domestic US flier, but the usability of Sky Miles for award travel is so (dare I say radically) different from Delta’s big “legacy” competitors that one has to wonder just what the heck happened? I got the distinct impression that the people I was meeting with had heard all of this before. Obviously, no one was going to tell me what Delta’s plans were, so about the only thing I can say is that we will see what happens with Sky Miles. My impression (and this is nothing but my opinion) is that something is coming, and that something could be as simple as an award booking calendar that might work, to one-way awards (a guy can dream), to something much bigger.

Final Thoughts

My visit with Delta was very informative, and I really appreciate the invitation. Delta has experienced a lot of success since the dark days of bankruptcy. The airline seems to have found its way, and I don’t think one can make a plausible argument that this company isn’t firing on all cylinders at the moment. Having some experience working for a big, successful company in the past, there’s always a risk that you become so enamored with your own success that you begin to believe your own bull and lose your way. An informal, 2 hour visit doesn’t make me an expert, but I did not come away with that feeling at all about Delta. My sense is that this is a company focused on doing things to offer a passenger experience that people are willing to pay for and earn a return that keeps them in business for the long term, and I guess that’s the way it should be.

Disclosure: My lunch, valued at $4.62, was paid for with my personal funds.