Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Being liked takes some talent.

Being disliked does too.

You have to work at annoying people -- perhaps unconsciously -- before they walk away and wish they'd never met you.

That's an experience many brands go through. Some of them happen to be airlines.

American and United, for example, have endured their image challenges over the last year or two.

Somehow, passengers have got the impression that these airlines care only about making money, rather than say, about whether customers enjoy the experience while the airline's making money.

Some feel that Delta Air Lines is an exception. But why?

Last week, the airline's EVP and CFO Paul Jacobson chatted at the Cowen and Company Global Transportation Conference.

He explained why, over time, Delta has improved its business. It was all displayed in one chart. (You can view it here.)

The chart showed that 8 years ago, the airline's Domestic Passenger Unit Revenue compared to the industry as a whole was 106 percent. 

In the first half of 2018, it was 119 percent. 

In Jacobson's quaint CEO speak: "Driving a revenue premium the likes of which we haven't seen in the industry, particularly domestically."

Could it be that Delta nickel-and-dimed its way to such glorious improvement? Oh, of course it did some of that. 

It was, for example, the pioneer of Sub-Cattle Class -- sometimes known as Basic Economy. Yet it was clever enough not to make it quite as restrictive as have its rivals.

For Jacobson, however, the crucial element was something painfully human.

The airline's Domestic Net Promoter Score in 2010 was 15.3 percent. Yes, a mere 3 in 20 passengers said they'd recommend flying with Delta.

In the first half of 2018, it's 43.9 percent. 

In essence, then, as people have become more moved by the Delta flying experience, they've been willing to pay a little premium for it.

Why, though, did people dislike Delta so much in 2010? 

Well, Jacobson suggested one figure that was likely influential. The airline canceled 5,000 flights because of maintenance problems that year.

This year, he claimed, there will be fewer than 100.

This contributes to the airline arriving on time more often -- something that, apparently, impresses customers who are used to flying being the 10th circling of Hell.

You'd think that most airlines would now be able to arrive on time, given that they pad schedules with even more verve than Janet Jackson dances.

Moreover, Delta flies some rickety old planes. Indeed, of the more known U.S. airlines, only Allegiant has an older fleet -- and it's finally getting some new planes.

Jacobson, though, boasted that "we're replacing about 30 percent of the mainline fleet through 2020."

A strong element in all this is surely the airline's general attitude toward customers.

For example, as American and United are tearing out seatback screens, Delta is putting more in.

Where American and United are shoving more seats on planes, Delta is -- at least in one instance -- resisting the urge

The staff, too, appear happier and more motivated.

I get far fewer messages from unhappy Delta employees than I do from those who work for American and United.

"The culture is the core of our foundation and where we believe that we can really make a difference," Jacobson explained.

Indeed, when Delta had to turn back a flight after it was almost halfway across the Atlantic -- all the toilets suddenly malfunctioned -- one of the pilots contacted me because he wanted to openly tell me what happened in the cockpit.

As we talked, one thing he told me is that he's proud to work for the airline "now that we've got good management."

Of course, it can take just one careless or malevolent mistake for an airline's image to be severely tested.

Yet it seems so hard for some airline CEOs to learn that customer service -- the artful intention of making people feel good -- really can be quite a moneymaker.  

Published on: Sep 9, 2018