Delta carries about 500,000 passengers a day. So when the airline's top boss of customer experience talks about the carrier's tactics and strategy, it's worth a listen.
Delta Air Lines is striving to boost its customer satisfaction scores, and the effort is led by Allison Ausband, executive vice president and chief customer experience officer. Ausband oversees about 60,000 workers in Delta’s airport customer service, in-flight service, and reservations and customer care divisions.
Ausband addressed questions about how Delta has been fine-tuning of its passenger service when she spoke on-stage on September 16 at Skift Aviation Forum in Dallas-Fort Worth. How’s the carrier increasing its on-time performance? How are its trials of free Wi-Fi going? Why have the waittimes at its airport lounges soared and what is the solution? When will the carrier add air taxi service at selected airports?
Get the answers to these and other questions by watching Ausband’s full on-stage appearance with Skift’s editor-at-large Brian Sumers — or read a transcript of it — below.
Brian Sumers: Hi, Allison.
Allison Ausband: Good morning.
Sumers: I am known around here for asking the toughest questions, so let me ask you a tough one to start. What does the Chief Customer Experience Officer do? I feel like this is a new title in the airline world.
Ausband: First of all, congratulations to Skift. We are very thankful for in-person conferences, and thank you for those of you who flew in on the Delta side. But yes, and a little bit about my background because I do think it’s unique in how we have it set up at Delta.
I started out my career as a flight attendant at Delta. Very interesting, six months into being a flight attendant, learned really, really quickly what the airline business was much more than just taking customers from point A to point B. That we have a much higher calling, serving customers every day. It is about humanity.
I was serving our first class cabin, and one of the customers was the rudest customer I’ve ever had in six months. Went back to the galley and took a deep breath and said, “I got to go back out there and figure this out.”
It just so happened that this customer, we were carrying her son below on the airplane, and I knew right then that being a part of something like an airline, it is about humanity, and it’s about serving people every day. Every single person, you all know this, that comes on board has a journey, and we’re there to serve them.
I think that makes a little bit unique, with my current job as Chief Customer Officer, I have 60,000 of Delta’s 90,000 employees, really all of our customer-facing employees at Delta, along with our CX design. And so we’ve got the group that does the strategy along with the group that executes every single day.
We were just at an offsite last week looking at our customer journey map from the time they leave home to the time they get to their destination. Taking that travel ribbon apart, and what do we need to do to continue to climb for our customers?
Sumers: All right. There’s an article on Delta’s website. It talks about how you want to bring a walking speed to airports.
Sumers: I’m a bit of a skeptic because I’m a journalist. I already walk through airports. I assume you don’t want people to run. What do you mean by walking speed through airports?
Ausband: We want it to be seamless for you and easy for you. We all know that’s the most stressful time, going into the airport, schlepping your luggage through, going through TSA, trying to get to your gate. You finally get in that seat and you feel at home. How do we make it really seamless?
Speed is what we’re talking about. The introduction of biometrics. We’ve got digital ID and our hubs will continue to expand that. You can drop your bag off by digital ID. You can check in at your boarding gate with digital ID. You can go through TSA with digital ID.
Then we’re also testing something really unique in our Detroit airport. We’ve engaged in a partner, Parallel Reality, where imagine a world with every flight information screen throughout the airport, that you just see your personal information on that screen. That’s exactly what we’re testing in Detroit.
You can have 100 people standing in front of that screen and they see, “Welcome to Detroit, Brian Sumers, you’re a diamond medallion with Delta Airlines.”
Sumers: Wouldn’t that be great?
Ausband: Wouldn’t that would be great? “You’re a diamond medallion with Delta Airlines. You’re at gate two. You’ve got two minutes to get to your gate.” It is an amazing technology that we want to deploy throughout the airport so you don’t have to, between biometrics, between “parallel reality,” these flight information screens, you don’t pull out your phone. All you do is keep moving till you get to that gate.
Sumers: All right. I don’t know how many in the audience have seen Parallel Reality. Your CEO, Ed Bastian, unveiled it at CES a few years ago.
Sumers: Are we sure that it’s not a gimmick? It’s really cool, but why is it so hard to pull out my phone and figure out where I want to go or look at the old FIDS boards?
Ausband: It’s not. We’re a society, we want to move, we want to keep moving. Less hassle the better. This just makes it simple.
Sumers: All right.
Ausband: I think for us it’s also not about getting through the airport, but Robert [Isom, CEO of American Airlines] was just talking about eVTOL. We want to make it easy for you to get to the airport. So we did just announce a partnership with Joby. It’s an electric air taxi is ultimately what it is. We’re going to launch it in our Los Angeles airport. You can move from home to the airport in this air taxi. Some of you in this room will remember the Jetsons and George Jetson. It’s a cross between that and a helicopter. Really, really cool technology. Make it easy for you to get to the airport. Once you get on the ground at the airport, it’s easy to get to your flight.
Sumers: As many people know, I live in LA. What year am I looking at? Are you ready to make that prediction?
Ausband: Counting on the end of 2024, early ’25. We’ve been working on it for several years now. The beauty of the pandemic, it allowed us to really move a lot of things forward in innovation like eVTOL.
Ausband: And we look forward to having you on.
Sumers: I cannot wait. Let me take you back to the present. Delta, on its earnings calls and beyond, has had just an obsession over NPS [net promoter scores]. I know sometimes these things can change. We just had a pandemic. Is this still the obsession at Delta? Why is NPS the metric?
Ausband: Yes, we are obsessed with NPS. We’re obsessed with even a 10th of a point of improvement or drop in NPS. But truly, and many of you in this room can relate, we carry 500,000 customers a day. That’s 500,000 opportunities to create a great experience for our customers. We’ve got to be listening to them and that’s our way to listen to know what’s sticking with them and what’s not working for them and what we need to improve.
We introduced a neat part, relative to NPS, in our surveys this year, which it’s been amazing. As you go through our survey, our customers can certainly write, type in, rate us throughout the survey, but they can now leave us a video. We are getting 100 customers a day leaving us a video about our people, about our products. We’re actually using that to recognize our Delta team. It’s amazing. We’ve got great customers that are taking the time to do that.
But our team, the CX team, every single day, we all have a dashboard. We know by market, by aircraft, by cabin, by customer base, what they’re saying and what they’re feeling about the Delta service.
Sumers: It’s widely thought in the industry that the number one driver of NPS is operational reliability. Is that the case at Delta as well?
Ausband: It is. 50% of our NPS is about safe clean on time and our people. Safe clean on time being number one.
Sumers: What are the ones, that as Chief Customer Experience Officer, you can actually control? Because you’re not in the operation center every day.
Ausband: Literally, we can control that 50%. It’s within our control, my team’s control, to get those airplanes out every day on time, safe, clean with their bags and certainly with our people who compliment everything. Really proud when everything goes on time, all is well with the world, with all of us. Really proud of the Delta team.
We’ve hired 25,000 people over the last year and a half. That’s a lot of new people to learn to get in rhythm with the airplane and all the things you have to do. It’s a complicated business. But, we have for September, October, November operated 99% of our flights were number one and on time.We’re just continuing to figure out how do we get even more perfect relative to on time. We introduced a new early boarding for our customers, our operation. Also, introduced a concept called Leave When Ready. Leave it to the operations team to define, an initiative. Leave When Ready is exactly what leave when ready means. When your customer’s on board, your staff’s there, you’ve got everything ready to go.
Three months ago, the Delta team, we would sit there and wait for departure time. Now, we’re leaving when ready, we have everything. We’re leaving when ready. It’s great because it gets our customers to their destination quicker. If they’re making a connection, again, just makes it a little bit less stressful for our customers to make those connections.
Sumers: I think a lot of us here are frequent flyers and maybe we obsess over things that don’t need to be obsessed about. But, I talk to people all the time and they want to know about the food on these airlines.
First of all, your food is actually quite good. Congratulations on that. I don’t know how you do it. Then second, does something like that drive NPS and how much?
Ausband: Yes. Food is complicated. You’re trying to please, on Delta, we’re trying to please 200 million customers a year. And right now, what we’re hearing from our customers, we’re serving a plant-based burger and we have people who want a beef burger back, too. Back to listening through NPS. We continue to tweak it, but it is absolutely a part of NPS, a part of the experience for us.
We launched, four years ago, just a complete transformation of our catering operation from farm, where we get all of our products and produce, to tray table.
How do we streamline that and ultimately make that quality, what we serve you on that tray table, thank you for the compliment, the best that it can be.
A part of that transformation was really diversifying our catering partners. Prior to that it was really a duopoly in the catering world. We needed variety, we wanted more variety.
I know when you and I were talking, you were talking about an Atlanta LA meal. Again, thank you for the compliment. That’s from one of our new chefs, Mashama Bailey. She’s award winning, has a restaurant in Savannah called The Grey, but we’re doing more and more of that. John and Vinny out of your hometown. They actually produce it in a catering kitchen. They own several restaurants in LA.
They produce it, actually, in their kitchen and transfer it to our Delta flight. The variety, we keep that up, but we keep it up and keep changing things based on what you all tell us.
Sumers: Great. I think there have been a lot of improvements over Delta even the last couple of years. It looks like you’ve improved the contact center wait times a lot. The food is very good.
If you do believe the blogs and the Twitter, and I do, I spend more time on that than I should, the one pain point that Delta hasn’t quite fixed yet is the wait times in the Delta Sky Clubs.
Sumers: What has happened there? You see these pictures and it’s actually remarkable how long people will wait in line for a free drink.
Ausband: Which we don’t want them to wait, but we love the fact that they want to get in our Sky Clubs. We have made tremendous enhancements to our Sky Club. We’ve got a 30,000 square foot new Sky Club in Los Angeles.
We’re proud of a 34,000 foot one in LaGuardia in Chicago. Just introduced a new Sky Club there. Our customers can actually leave the Sky Club and board the jet way to a flight to LaGuardia.
We’re going to continue to invest in our Sky Clubs. We’ve invested so much. We have more customers wanting to get in there.
As Chief Customer Officer, you never want something so great that people have to be, we don’t want them to wait in line because that’s a part of that stress free getting through the airport. We recently made some policy changes there. We’ve just asked our retirees to come back and help us in our Sky Clubs, hospitality host in our Sky Clubs.
A lot of it is just managing, making sure the Sky Club is cleaned, the tables are cleaned so people have a place to sit and you can navigate and find that seat. We will have them on for the holidays and we’ll continue to have them throughout the transition till we can add and we’re adding more space where we can in our Sky Clubs.
The last thing that I’ll say that we just introduced or we’ll introduce next week, on our app, which we love our flyers to download that app. It makes life easier. But, we have a today mode on our app where we, in that today mode, our customers will know what Sky Club where they don’t have to wait.
For example, in Atlanta we’ve got seven Sky Clubs. We’ll tell you to go to B Concourse because it doesn’t have a wait right now. We want to get in front of it for our customers knowing that we have lines at some peak periods to be able to make it easy for them.
Ausband: And we promise when they get in there, they’ll love it.
Sumers: One of your colleagues gave that great quote recently to the Wall Street Journal. “We are not a WeWork.”
Sumers: Is part of it you just made the clubs too good and people just want to hang out there all the time?
Ausband: It is, it is. Have you been in it?
Sumers: I’ve been in the new club in LA for one of your events.
Ausband: What did you think?
Sumers: It’s a lovely place, although as another airline executive told me once, “It’s great until the customers start coming in and making a mess out of everything.”
Ausband: That’s our job to clean it up and we will. We will continue to invest there. It’s a place for our premium customers to come in and relax a little bit before they get on board that airplane.
Sumers: Great. We talked a little bit before about self-service. But. Then you also talked about the human element. You were doing some hiring of people, you told me on the phone, something that just absolutely shocks me. Partly because I hate people and partly because the way the industry has gone over the last few years, you are hiring red coats.
Do you guys know what red coats are? Can you explain what red coats are and then tell everyone why you’re bringing them back?
Ausband: Yeah. We’ve not let go of red coats. For any of you who know Delta, and I know we have some Delta people in the room, the red coats have been iconic in our airports for as long, I’ve been at Delta 37 years, they’ve been there the entire 37 years. Their intent is to be that brand ambassador in every airport. If a customer needs anything, they are right there to save the day.
They’re right there to recognize our customers. Really that concierge for the airport. As we’ve gone through the pandemic, trying to get our staffing right, they really got pulled into getting the flights out on time and being another gate agent. Which is great. We put them there for the time we needed it to stabilize the operation. But, really want to pull them back out. When you think about our premium travelers and premium leisure travelers, all of that, we’re seeing more premium desire for premium throughout flying.
We want to have that red coat there for them. The neat thing about it, relative to my job and within my scope, when you think about premium, you have our red coats, you have our pursers on board our airplanes, we have our premium desk and reservations, and the collective work and the synergy among those three work groups to be able to serve our customers in a way that they want to be served. They’re going to be there for the customer.
For you, we’re going to give you service excellence through digital because you don’t want to talk to us.
Sumers: Thank you very much. Appreciate that. Let’s see, I had hoped that we’d get past the pandemic and I would never have to ask this question again, but I believe that I’m contractually obligated to ask it. Everybody still wants to know about Wi-Fi.
Sumers: The Wi-Fi has improved a lot at Delta. I know that you’re doing a trial of free Wi-Fi. What are you learning from this trial and how quickly is everybody on Delta Airlines going to get free Wi-Fi?
Ausband: Yeah, we are actively testing free WiFi right now. I think this room can appreciate it because we’re all in aviation, but it’s complex. We want WiFi to be exactly the same for you at 35,000 feet up as it is on the ground for our customers.
It’s complex to do, but we are actively testing it right now and it’s working. We have some new partners in the space really, really working well. I would just build on that, relative to the airplane.
For us, as we look at that onboard experience, it is about, we want our customers to be as stimulated as they want to be in the air. They want to be on Wi-Fi, fast streaming Wi-Fi, or they want to be on their laptop or the IFE.
We’re heavily investing in our IFE and that’s an exciting opportunity for us.
I know a lot of carriers are doing away with their in-seat videos. We’re keeping them. We’ve got 147,000, more than any other carrier. 91% of our customers engage in that IFE. It’s been just something that we’re continued to invest in.
We’ve got 300 movies on our aircraft. Current one is Top Gun Maverick. Just a little side note, I think it’s cool. One of our captains out in LA, on Top Gun Maverick on the movie, directed, sat, and was the expert for every takeoff and landing.
Ausband: Yeah. Pretty cool. But with that, also relative to IFE, we’ve got Spotify. Great partner. Spotify.
MasterClass is extremely popular. If you want to know how to play poker, we’ve got Phil Ivy’s MasterClass. If you want to know how to do succotash for Thanksgiving, Mashama Bailey, whose meal you had. The most watched MasterClass, at the moment, is how to sleep better. You need that after your West Coast arrival.
Sumers: It’s mainly my two kids that I need it for.
Ausband: It’s something that we want our customers to have choice and be as entertained as they want to be. Entertained, whether it’s Wi-Fi or entertainment on board.
Sumers: I imagine you’re going to tell me you don’t think too much about what the competition is doing. Do you feel, in some ways, vindicated? It looked like the whole industry was going to go away from that second screen in front of you.
Now, at some point in the last five years, Scott Kirby had an epiphany and he claims that he always loved screens on airplanes. The people I talk to say he didn’t always love screens. But regardless, you’ve brought this trend back. Screens are back. What did you see that the competition didn’t see?
Ausband: We see an opportunity to serve our customers. We’re all sitting in at home with our smart TVs. Why can’t you have it on board the airplane? We want you to be as comfortable in the air as you are on the ground. And that’s just, for us, knowing we’ve got more screens than anybody else in the industry, it’s a competitive advantage that we have and we’re going to seize it.
Sumers: Great. All right. We’ve got to ask a somewhat serious question here.
Sumers: You are in charge of the flight attendant group. The flight attendants at Delta have been non-union in the history of Delta. There have been some attempts. There’s another attempt ongoing right now. I talked to the AFA sometimes. I think they’re a little less bullish than they were a couple years ago. What’s happening there on Delta’s side? Are you trying to push this union away?
Ausband: Yeah. First of all, we’re the least unionized carrier in the world. We are different. At Delta, we say we’re different. I firmly, wholeheartedly believe we’re different.
From a flight attendant perspective, there have been four attempts to unionize Delta flight attendants. Our flight attendants have rejected that every single time.
For us, it’s about a direct relationship. Our flight attendants have a right to unionize if that’s what they choose to do. But, I think we have shown them that, and we like to say, “The world’s finest flight attendants wear the wings of Delta.”
No offense to any other carrier, but we believe that. We have a long standing record of paying our Delta flight attendants at the top of the industry. We’ve done that forever and we continue to listen to what they need. I brought up D40, our early boarding, that we put into place a couple of months ago.
That was something, being a flight attendant, I knew that was going to impact our flight attendant group. But, it was the right thing to do for our customers, it was the right thing to do for our operation to get on time. We tested it. Our flight attendants said, “We want more pay for that.” We answered that.
That is something that no other unionized carrier has. Its industry leading boarding pay.
The FAA just introduced a rest rule for our flight attendants, a new rest rule. We implemented that three years ago for our flight attendants. It’s that direct relationship.
No different than we listen to our customers every single day. We listen to our flight attendants and really all of our Delta people every single day.
Sumers: Thank you. We have a couple of audience questions here on the monitor in front of us. I’m going to ask you the second one here. It says, Parallel Reality is a great example of personalization. What other exciting personalization efforts is Delta working on?
Ausband: Yeah, I would say relative just to personalization, data driven CX is our path forward. For us, it’s about using the data to give to our people to provide that service excellence. A lot of other companies, Starbucks, Amazon, all great partners, personalization’s not new, but in the airline industry it’s a little bit more complex.
People have network choices, food and beverage choices, product choices. Where do you want to sit?
How do we ultimately take all of that data and what our customers want and be able to serve them better? Back to 200 million customers a year that we serve, we want to know what they want and what they want matters.
The more that they do business with us, the more that they will join onto the app. The more they will join Sky Miles, the better we’ll get to know them. We have a tremendous amount of data on our customers, but we need to put it in place where we can serve it up to our frontline folks.
We just announced a new Chief Digital Officer, that’s his primary mission, is pull data from all of our systems across Delta to bring it together so we can better personalize the experience. In addition to Parallel Reality, right now, we really, a couple of things that we’re serving up to our teams to be able to better personalize.
One is misconnects. When we have a service failure and we misconnect a customer, we’re serving that up to our flight attendants on board so that our flight attendants can walk up to Brian and you’re sitting in 26B to say, “Brian, I’m so sorry we misconnected you. We’re going to make you a little late to your meeting or what have you, but I’m going to make it up to you on the flight today.”
That’s a hard conversation for our frontline to have, but our flight at attendants do it every day.
The satisfaction, the NPS, back to we watch every second across the travel ribbon, the NPS for those customers, that we recognize a misconnect, is 18 points higher than those we don’t.
The other one, what we’re doing right now, is recognizing million miler status. We have 70 new million milers every single day that fly on Delta. Whether you’re becoming a million miler today or whether you’re 14 million miles, we have a 14 million miler, is going to be 15 million miles. Our flight attendants, our gate agents, our pilots, our reservation agents all know that now.
Every single day, we’re all about those 70 customers to recognize them. It’s the small things that matter. We’ve got our teams writing handwritten notes to customers.
They know that you’re traveling to Boise, Idaho today, and we’ve got one flight attendant who, every single city, she will draw that on the thank you card and say, “Thank you for flying Delta. Enjoy your trip to Boise.” Just more and more, but the deeper the relationship, the better we can serve you.
Sumers: Wonderful. Thank you so much for this conversation. It has been great.
Ausband: Sure. Oh, thank you so much.
Sumers: All right.
Ausband: Thank you all very much.
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Photo credit: Allison Ausband, executive vice president and chief customer experience officer, speaking at Skift Aviation Forum 2022 in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. Source: Skift.