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

It's hard to be put upon.

For American Airlines, 2019 involved diatribes from customers, often business travelers, Wall Street, and seemingly every customer on Twitter. Why, even American's own pilots now pointedly praise airlines like United -- yes, that United -- while deriding their own.

United was a pejorative. It was the (industry) trailer. American was on the other end. American now is the new United. We don't like that. We want to win.

And last week, American was declared by The Wall Street Journal to be the worst of America's major airlines. Yes, it came below Frontier, Allegiant, and Spirit.

By contrast, Delta managed to take step after step that differentiated it from the rest. Few would dispute it's the best of the biggest. The Journal put it on top.

I thought, then, I'd perform a test. On a recent business trip, I flew from San Francisco to Miami on American, and returned on Delta. Both trips would be in first class, the place where airlines like to make the most money.

Would the difference be glaring? I expected it might.

On American Airlines, a Strange Surprise.

First-class passengers have constantly complained about American's new so-called Project Oasis seats. Whoever named the idea of shoving more seats inside planes and even reducing the legroom in first class Project Oasis must have a bitter sense of amusement.

American is retrofitting some planes twice to allow its first-class passengers to put something, anything, under the seat in front of them. Still, that isn't even the worst of American's problems. The airline is constantly criticized for the apparent lack of enthusiasm on the part of its employees -- especially its flight attendants.

On my flight, things didn't begin so well. I didn't get a hullo on boarding from either flight attendant standing at the front. This bothers many passengers and I confess I prefer to be greeted. But perhaps the two flight attendants had something important to talk about, such as pending labor negotiations.

Then came lunch. I had ordered a chicken salad, in the belief that this might be pleasant. What arrived was salad in a small bowl and slices of chicken on the side. The salad didn't have a pleasing countenance. The chicken was drier than a nostril in the desert. I couldn't finish it. Honestly, I could barely start it. This made me crave Wendy's lettuce. At least the wine was palatable.

On the marginally brighter side, the seat was perfectly comfortable, I could place a bag underneath and, once my seatmate had learned not to flop his blanket over half my chest, I could relax.

I will admit that the couple in front of me almost ruined everything. They brought their cat with them. The cat doesn't like flying. It whined and whined, even when they let it out of its carrier and it crawled all over them. Still, I reached for zen and stared out of the window.

It was, though, two-thirds of the way through the flight that something very strange occurred.

I went to the restroom. As I walked toward it, I could see the two flight attendants sitting on their tiny jumpseats, chatting. As I walked by, the elder gentleman looked up at me and said: "Would you like another drink?"

It might seem small, but it was the first time I'd seen truly proactive customer service on American for some time.

I didn't need another drink, but the fact that he'd proactively paid attention actually made me smile.

This, then, made the flight seem more memorable -- on the positive side, that is -- than it might otherwise have been. There is hope, American.

On Delta, It's Still the Little Things.

Delta doesn't fly directly between Miami and San Francisco, so I was forced to connect in Atlanta, at an extremely ungodly hour of the morning.

As with American, my flight was on time. Unlike American, the cabin on both planes felt far more dated. The seats were comfortable enough, without being exceptional. Yet the human elements were still cleverly prominent.

On the flight from Miami to Atlanta, we were all asked to join in a celebration for a flight attendant who had spent 50 years of her life with Delta. She was presented at the front of the plane. The pilot made an announcement, as did the first-class flight attendant. Everyone applauded. There are few people who have worked at any one company for 50 years. 

What, though, of the food? By the time my plane took off from Atlanta toward San Francisco, I was awake. In the spirit of absolute fairness, I'd also ordered a chicken salad. Unlike the food on American, this tasted like a chicken salad that had been recently made. 

The remainder of the flight was characterized by only one thing -- the gentle decency of the service. There was no sense of rushing, no idea that the flight attendants needed to put everything away so that they could get their own rest while staring at their phones. 

The most remarkable element, however, came right at the end. A flight attendant wished every single passenger a happy holiday and a wonderful new year.  

It was so deftly performed that each greeting felt personal and sincere. 

As I got off the plane, a pilot joined the flight attendants to bid farewell to passengers. Somehow, the slight dowdiness of the plane was entirely forgotten.

The Lesson: It's Always the Human Element.

There wasn't so much to choose between the two airlines. Or, at least, not as much as I'd imagined. This wasn't the glorious versus the grotesque.

The real difference -- other than the painful disparity in food quality -- was that the human element of customer service seemed infused throughout the Delta experience, while on American it was rather confined to one exceptionally, spontaneously thoughtful gesture.

As everything becomes roboticized, personal touches still have an enormous effect. Whether the product experience is going right or wrong -- and with airlines people really dislike the wrong -- how your employees handle it is crucial. 

You can remind them of this every day. You also have to give them the freedom to express their own personalities in their own way.

It's not as if these flight attendants were all necessarily happy employees. At American, they're girding their loins for a contract negotiation. At Delta, many flight attendants are adamant they want unionization, while the airline uses grisly means to prevent this.

Being an excellent customer service professional, however, means making personal contact count and making it feel spontaneous.

In their way, then, both experiences had their human positives.

And perhaps in an era where airlines are desperate to gouge money from passengers, that was the biggest surprise of all.

Published on: Jan 19, 2020
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.