Delta Air Lines Made a Very Small Change that Is Making Some of Its Best Customers Angry

I guess you could say the good news is that travel is back. The bad news, of course, is that it’s kind of a mess. If you’ve been to an airport recently, you know they are as crowded as they’ve ever been with more and more people traveling to make up for the last few years of staying home. At the same time, airlines are stretched to capacity, flight cancelations and delays are up, and the overall experience isn’t great.

Managing all of that is getting more challenging. For example, airlines have preemptively eliminated flights from their schedule to hopefully reduce cancelations later. The goal is to provide fewer disruptions and make the experience of traveling a little bit better.

Some of the changes, however, are less obvious unless you’re paying attention. Recently, Delta made a very small change to the way it boards its planes. Like most airlines, Delta boards by groups or zones. It starts with pre-boarding for people who need extra time to get to their seats, followed by active duty military personnel.

In the past, regular boarding started with passengers in First Class or Delta One (international business class), as well as Delta’s top tier frequent flyers, which it calls Diamond Medallions. It was a nice perk for those members, especially on sold-out flights on smaller planes since it meant you wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not there would still be space for your carry-on when you got to your seat.

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Now, however, First Class or Delta One board in the first group, with Diamond Medallions following immediately afterward. It’s a small change, but one that’s making some people pretty upset.

About the change, a Delta spokesperson told Inc:

As customers continue to return to travel in high numbers, Delta implemented a minor boarding update across the system on August 3 that will simplify and better meter the current boarding process. This adjustment shifts the boarding order for a small group of premium customers while still offering them a preferential boarding experience.

Look, for most of the millions of people who travel every day, it doesn’t change the experience even a little bit. Even for most travelers who have qualified for Diamond status, it won’t make much of a difference as most of them end up in First Class or Delta One anyway.

For those that it does affect, the reaction seems to be more about feeling as though airlines have been devaluing frequent flyer status over time, than about any practical change in how people get on the plane. Because, practically, there is little difference.

I think it’s fair to say in the grand scheme of things you might choose to worry about, whether you board an airplane first or second really is not a big deal. That doesn’t mean it’s not a deal at all, however. I mean, if you’re in a hurry to board a plane, you probably have a reason.

Except – and this is the part I think is being missed – the new boarding policy doesn’t change anything about how much room will be left in the overhead bins when anyone boards. If there are 12 people in first class, and 20 more people with Diamond status who are not in first class, the previous version meant 32 people were trying to cram their way onto the plane at the same time.

Now, there are 12 people who board in the first group, and then the other 20 people board. It’s still the same number of people, just in a slightly less chaotic process. If you aren’t in First Class but have Diamond Medallion status, you still board before everyone else on the plane, Delta is just asking you to take a pause and wait another two to three minutes before you start walking down the jet bridge.

I think the reason it makes people angry is that, regardless of the fact there is virtually no functional difference, to some people it feels like a downgrade in the experience. To them, it feels as though Delta cares less about its top-tier frequent flyers than it did before, as though they are less important. And, while that might seem silly, it does matter.

You might be tempted to think that feeling is irrational, or dismiss it because you don’t feel like your customers are being fair to your overall objective. None of that changes the fact that if your customers are frustrated, or upset, or disappointed, or angry about a change you made, it’s a problem.

If your goal is to improve the experience your customers have with your company, making them angry is usually not a great strategy. Sometimes the solution is as simple as doing a better job explaining the why behind whatever change you make.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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