Delta Northwest: A Dream or a Nightmare

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

Last Thursday, Delta announced that its acquisition of Northwest had been approved. This will be either a dream or a nightmare for fliers of either airline.

And, oddly enough, I think it’ll depend on how the new entity brands itself.

Thursday’s full-page newspaper ads were mildly encouraging; even though the headline declared the expected nonsense about "creating a premier airline," most of the copy was all about provisions to help fliers weather the imminent storm.

It’s all but certain to be very bumpy.

Merging maintenance, IT systems, staffing from baggage handlers to flight attendants and pilots…imagine the likely snags and snafus, not to mention the unforeseen ones (like, say, another big spike in fuel prices). 

There’s absolutely no upside in any of this for fliers. To even suggest otherwise is disingenuous, at best. The rationale for the merger is dependent on finding efficiencies and cost-reductions in all areas of airline operations. Fliers will risk getting inconvenienced while the new Delta works to assemble a new airline out of its old self and the soon-to-be-former Northwest.

I suspect the alternative was managing a slow decline to dissolution. So it should tell its customers the truth.

Instead of making the wan promises to help mitigate the ensuing nightmare — special provisions, staff, and kiosks — why not boldly declare something like this:

We plan to build the healthiest, best airline in the world.

It could have supported the declaration with this honest rationale:

Giving our fliers the service, reach, and reliability they deserve means finding ways to fly and conduct our business more efficiently, and do so more effectively. Cutting-edge maintenance.  Next-generation information technology. The most dedicated and capable employees not just in the airline industry, but any industry.

The new Delta will be the airline you can depend on for business travel, for your family vacations, and for the lasting value of your frequent traveler benefits.

Then the branding behaviors, not just the communications, could focus on active things the company, its employees, and its customers could do to collaboratively build that future:

  • Public benchmarks for on-time performance, baggage transfer, etc.
  • An open dialogue on additional expenses, and how/why they’ll form a part of the future  relationship
  • A program to encourage fliers to test systems, processes, and report successes and failures
  • Employee communications, like blogs, evidencing progress and issues to resolve, not just telling them top-down what to do
  • Guarantees that frequent flier benefits/programs will be preserved; link additional benefits to the airline meeting performance goals, so everyone shares in the success

There are probably a zillion other ways to operationalize the new Delta brand, and there’s nothing wrong with articulating a dream…as long as you provide the dreamers the tools and behaviors to make the dream come true.

Otherwise, I think we’re talking nightmare here.

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