Anyone who travels knows how inconvenient it can be when you arrive at the airport only to find out your flight was oversold, and now the gate crew has to find volunteers to give up a seat. If they don't, someone will be told they aren't making it to their planned destination. At least not tonight.
The airlines call this "involuntary denied boarding," (IDB), or what passengers call a "bump." If you're on the receiving end, it usually feels more like a swift kick in the rear, as the door closes at the gate with you still standing in the terminal while your flight leaves without you.
Either way, in the last quarter, Delta did not have a single one, according to the FAA. That means not a single passenger was told, "Sorry, we didn't expect all of you who paid for a ticket to actually show up for the flight, so one of you gets to stand here and wave as everyone else flies home."
And Delta's trend has continued through July and August as well. In fact, throughout the entire year, the company has only had three IDBs.
That's unheard of. For comparison, the FAA's report says that during the same three-month period that ended in June, American Airlines had 5,227. Southwest had 2,500. Those two airlines have been hit especially hard, due largely to the grounding of their 737-MAX planes over safety concerns.
No one wants to get bumped.
As you can imagine, IDBs are not a great situation. It's not good for the passenger, and it's not good for the airline. Airlines will usually do their best to entice someone to give up their seat with a voucher and a seat on a future flight, with the compensation increasing until someone is willing to voluntarily give up their seat.
At Delta, in addition to offering vouchers that can be used on future flights, gate agents are able to offer gift cards to other retailers. Those are often far more attractive to casual or vacation travelers.
By the way, it's not that Delta doesn't still oversell flights--they do. They still, at times, have to ask for volunteers. But volunteering to give up your seat in exchange for some form of compensation is very different than simply being told you're not getting a seat.
Delta also adjusted capacity and changed its overbooking policy on flights it knows are likely to cause problems. Flights with a high percentage of business travelers are no longer oversold to the same extent because those passengers are far less likely to accept a voluntary "bump," which forces the airline into a situation it recognizes is bad for its brand.
Understand your customer's pain points.
"The view was that whenever an IDB occurs, that takes a nick on the Delta brand because Delta didn't fulfill its promise to the customer," said Eric Phillips, Delta's senior vice president of pricing and revenue management, in an interview last week with Forbes.
How true. In fact, that might be the smartest thing I've ever heard an airline say about its brand. Seriously.
Airlines aren't always known as the most customer-friendly corporations, and the experience can often seem even worse, considering that by the time something goes wrong, you're pretty much at their mercy.
If your grocery store is out of your favorite pita bread and hummus, there are usually other stores close by. But if you're standing in an airport trying to get to an important business meeting, or home from a big trade show before your son's baseball tournament this weekend, the last thing you want to hear is, "I'm sorry this flight is oversold."
What a great lesson in recognizing one of the greatest pain points travelers face and doing what it takes to reduce the number of times you have to put a customer through that experience.
Make a choice to put customers first.
I think what's most remarkable about this move is that Delta made an intentional choice to measure success by something that directly affected its customers. Then, the company made the changes to the way it does business that would help it deliver.
Delta is changing the equation on whether overbooking flights is worth it for the company. It's acknowledging that there's an additional cost to their brand every time they fail to keep their promise. There is a cost to the overall experience a customer has, which changes the way they feel about Delta.
And that's really what it's all about. Delta recognizes that its brand is the way its customers feel about how it does business, and that feeling is informed by every experience, good or bad. Getting rid of involuntary bumps turns out to be good for everyone.