Delta agents can give bumped passengers up to $10,000 now; and flight attendants have free-miles-giving gadgets

Delta’s Guest Service Tool

Seems like a good week to help airline employees do right by passengers. Delta Airlines just confirmed to me that it has massively bumped up the compensation its employees can offer when bumping fliers — to as high as $10,000.  Meanwhile, a relatively new gadget called SkyPro lets flight attendants dole out free miles to passengers in mid-flight for smaller disruptions.

A memo obtained by the Associated Press on Friday says gate agents can offer passengers up to $2,000 — up from $800 — and supervisors can offer up to $9,950.  Delta confirmed the report to me.

I wrote earlier this week about the problem of perverse incentives that encourage workers towards mistreating consumers — or even to commit criminal acts, as we saw in the Wells Fargo case.  All the facts aren’t in yet, but it seems likely that perverse incentives were at play when the United Airlines passenger ejection drama played out in Chicago earlier this week. Somehow, workers involved had the message that increasing compensation to get “volunteers” off that now doomed flight wasn’t a better option than calling police.

Well, Delta sure changed that dynamic. The airline has already used novel techniques to keep its involuntary boarding denials low. Now, workers there have dramatic new power to make things right; and that’s welcome.

That news broke at the same time I started looking into a report from friend and colleague Dan Maccarone about a (shockingly?) customer-friendly interaction he’d had on a Delta flight this week. It also involves empowering workers.

“Flying back yesterday, my tray broke in my hands as I was taking it out. And the flight attendant looked at it and (said) ‘That’s never happened before. I have no idea how to fix it,’ ” he told me.  So the agent pulled out a gadget and gave him compensation for his trouble on the spot. “(It took) a picture of my boarding pass. (She) entered my name and the relative issue and it spit out that I would receive 5,000 miles. Actually thought that was pretty cool.”

The gadget was introduced a few years ago as the Guest Service Tool, designed to make it easier for flight attendants to personalize flying experiences.  When I spoke to Delta spokeswoman Ashton Morrow called it “SkyPro.”

“We empower flight attendants with SkyPro devices that allow them to recognize and solve problems for customers while in flight. This tool allows them to provide world-class hospitality,” she said.

On a week that was otherwise bad for airlines — including Delta, which saw 60% of its flights impacted by a combined weather/technology disaster earlier — this small gesture meant a lot to Maccarone. And it certainly helped Delta’s reputation.

“I told like six friends the story while I was still on the plane,” he said.

Maccarone was in first class when this happened, but Morrow said the miles-granting gadget was available to all flight attendants, and could be used to help all passengers.

The airline industry has have a long way to go to recover from years of declining service and, at times, outright antagonism of consumers.  Delta has a long way to go to recover from the pile or travel nightmares experienced by its customers earlier this week.

But these Delta stories show airlines can operate differently.

“I love that they took the high road as a company,” Maccarone said.

I’d imagine plenty of companies could benefit from putting something like a Guest Service Tool in the hands of workers.  But that requires one major culture shift:

Corporations have to stop hating their customers, and their workers.

I know, I know, you are thinking that’s hyperbole. It’s not.  Ever catch an executive unaware when they talk about their customers?  I have.  Same with many customer service agents. It’s something I call “The Great Divorce.”

Consumers hate scheming, nasty corporations, and the companies hate them right back.

Plenty of companies design customer service to, above all, prevent would-be cheaters from getting too much free stuff, or complaining too much.  Yes, these rotten customers do exist (on a bulletin board I have frequented, they are called SC’s, or Sucky Customers).  While they are real, and they are a headache, it’s unfair to design customers service around the 1% of SCs, at the expense of all the others. That makes customer service agents stingy, and often gives every interactions all the charm of a court case. (“The thing you bought from us is broken? HOW DID IT BREAK??! WHAT DID YOU DO!!”)

Meanwhile, plenty of companies don’t trust workers to be judicious with “comps” or other “make-it-right” tools.  They count them in a spreadsheet; they force manager and manager’s manager approvals.

Then, one day, someone gets dragged out of an airplane, bloodied and set up for a large lawsuit payout.

There is another way, as Delta has shown. Let’s see if its competitors are wise enough to follow along.

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About Bob Sullivan 1060 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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