Delta Doubles Down

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

It’s too easy to rip on the airlines; they’re apparently stuck in a no-win situation, with rising fuel prices on one end, and ever-more harried employees and disgruntled passengers on the other.

But Delta seems hellbent on speeding up its own demise.

Within the last few weeks, it has announced that it will double the charge for a second checked bag (to $50), and that it will make using frequent flier miles to get tickets a lot more difficult and expensive. It’s also raising fees for checking special items, like surfboards (and, you’d imagine, skis).

The sad part is that the fees make absolute sense. I know you’ve seen the junk people try to take onto planes, whether via checked baggage or carry-on. Entire rock collections. Suitcases the size of small cars. It has long been a loophole that let the enterprising shipper check a few bags that would have cost hundreds of dollars extra to send via the mail or UPS.

But making financial sense doesn’t necessarily make for good marketing. Better put, just because a spreadsheet says something should work, it certainly doesn’t mandate it. Usually, dire financial needs tend to weaken brands.

Imagine if Delta approached its crisis as an opportunity for strengthening its brand:

  • What a time to build a real community. How many people and entities have a vested, or very personal interest in seeing Delta survive? Lots, right? Employees, travelers, vendors, airport personnel, etc. Instead of approaching social media as some make-believe communications space, why not establish a real, meaningful community (or communities) with the purpose of helping the airline? Don’t stop at social conversation, but figure out ways to establish a contract of sorts…a "we’ll do this if you do that" deal
  • Incentivize desired behavior. Once it had people somewhat committed to a purpose, Delta could encourage positive actions vs. focusing on disincentives to bad ones. It could provide travel incentives to vendor families, or discounts for travelers who arrive at the airport with no baggage. Giving people tools that benefit them, while also benefiting the business, is much smarter (and more relevant) branding than announcing more putative fees. More carrot, less stick
  • Set boundaries. Everyone has a preconceived notion about where all this is going, right? Delta is going to either 1) go bankrupt, and/or b) merge with another carrier. So there’s this sense of all bets could be off that pervades every communication; how could anybody make a commitment to the airline if they know that there’s no way the airline will make a commitment to them? The answer, of course, is to make those very commitments. Delta should announce the things it will change, and things it won’t. What is the threshold for a merger? Can it commit to never changing its frequent flier program, or deleting miles?  A little transparency would go a long way right now

Do I think Delta is going to do any of this? No, and nor would any other airline. There’s just no good corporate strategy that links brand communication with something as dire as the crisis confronting the airline industry. 

Too bad. Doubling down is the real gamble.

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