An Open Letter To Joe Kolshak – Executive Vice President And Chief Of Operations For Delta Airlines

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Dear Joe,
Today was one of the first (and hopefully) last times that I plan on flying Delta Airlines. It’s funny that I’m writing this to you, because as my Blog gains in popularity and our Digital Marketing agency, Twist Image, continues to grow, I swore that I would never speak ill of any brand/corporation. I did not want to use this Blog as a customer service complaint channel plus, you never know how things will change, and I would hate to know that Twist Image lost business because I Blogged about something while in the heat of a bad moment.
The truth is, I think your airline, Delta, is beyond repair.
I just spent eighteen hours flying from Bangkok to New York City on Thai Airways. It was an amazing experience from check-in to baggage pick-up. As I transferred over at JFK Airport into what-I-thought-would-be Delta’s capable hands to get me back home to Montreal, I was truly let down.
When I first left for South East Asia about two weeks ago, my luggage was lost on Delta. Imagine that, my first flight on a three-flight connection trip (over twenty-four hours of flying) and the luggage was lost before even leaving the U.S. It took the kind people at Thai Airways to not only hunt the bag (that your airline lost) down, but they physically sent one of their reps to pick up my bags at your terminal so it could make the flight. Delta could not even let me know when it might be shipped to my hotel in Singapore. Thankfully, the bags arrived on Thai Airways with me, specifically because of one Thai Air customer service rep, Dan, and his dedication to making flying on Thai Airways a great experience. Ironically, when I thanked Dan, he asked that I thank the whole Thai Airways crew. Humility and team work always build the best brands.
So here I am (on my trip back home), after an eighteen hour flight and all I need to do is get from JFK to Montreal (a one hour flight) on Delta. As I headed over to the Delta terminal at JFK (Terminal #3) I wondered what country I was in. Having just been in airports from Singapore, Phuket, Bangkok and Montreal, I could not believe that this was a United States airport in New York. The dreadful heat (only made worse by these huge fans at the terminal blowing hot air), an actual pigeon walking around in the adjacent food court and into our terminal gate looking for food (at last check, JFK was not an open-air building) and the overall dirtiness of everything from the carpets, to the seats to the burned out light bulbs to the smell emanating from the washrooms made me wonder if I was in a third world country.
The listing for our flight at the gate was only posted five minutes prior to boarding. Our gate was crammed with four other flights, and nobody at the gate knew if the plane had arrived. Your staff was not helpful in this regard as they were too busy trying to load four other flights through this one terminal gate.
When it was time to finally board, the Delta staff member taking my boarding pass asked where my “green card” was. I’m from Canada Joe. I don’t have a green card. I had been through customs, your Delta check in counter and security. Nobody had mentioned anything about a green card. When I informed your staff member of this, she just shrugged her shoulders and let me pass (that made me feel confident about your security measures).
The flight was equally disappointing. From seats that would hardly be comfortable for someone who is five foot five (let alone my six foot plus height) to the condition of the interior, the entire experience could only be described as “embarrassing.” And here’s what really inspired this letter: I picked up the August 2007 issue of your in-flight magazine, Sky, and read your Perspective piece titled, Seeking Smarter Skies:
“Hello, and welcome aboard the new Delta! I hope by now you’ve had a chance to see some of the changes we’ve made to make your travel experience simpler and more enjoyable. In our airports, we continue to upgrade our branding and signage and implement changes to make your trip from check-in through security as hassle-free as possible. We’re also investing in much-needed facility and infrastructure improvements in the concourse and on the ramps in New York and Atlanta. Finally, we’re making a significant investment in our people to ensure we’re prepared to handle all your travel needs.”
You might want to start with having “your people” actually be friendly and smile versus the constant flow of “you’re such a sucker” vibe that they give off to your clients.
Imagine what I thought about when I read your “perspective” after going through all of this? The days of talking the talk are gone Joe. Delta has to walk that talk.
I also don’t think this is an isolated incident. In fact, my good friend, Joseph Jaffe, author of Life After The 30-Second Spot, Blogger over at Jaffe Juice and Podcaster at, Across The Sound, had this Blog posting today: We Realize You Have NO Choice In Airlines. And it has Delta insights like this:
“From a marketing perspective, why are airlines not turning this huge negative into a positive. Take my current experience with Delta today. As a Platinum customer, I expect to be treated a little differently (I just do). Instead of taking some responsibility, they just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘not our problem. It’s the weather’.”
That only further inspired me to let you know that if your new branding campaign is based on “Experience Change” you can’t just say it_ you have to live it.
At this point, the fifty dollar low-budget flight I took from Phuket to Bangkok on Air Asia made them look like Virgin Air Upper Class compared to your full-fared, unchangeable Delta ticket.
Please take a more serious look at what you’re offering. The brand is not just getting me home on time. It’s everything from the experience I have at the airport to the people who take my boarding pass to what the other customers are saying on the flight. It’s also a lot harder to take when your are making claims like the quote above in your in-flight magazine.
Branding and Marketing are about the full experience. I know it’s not easy. Delta is a big company. But big changes happen when the little things are done right. Get your people passionate about their work. Get your business excited about getting people to where they need to go. Get it done well and get it done right, and you’ll never have to lead the charge behind an “Experience Change” campaign again. When things are done right, there’s never any need to change.


  1. From the sublime to the ridiculous:
    Mitch, the truth is all airlines, Delta, Air Canada, US Airways have evolved or devolved into flying Greyhound buses. Pricing wars to that have encourage more people to fly, fuel costs and union wages that have made it increasingly more expensive to run an airline and passengers who show more respect for a public bathroom than an airplane have all contributed to this sad chapter in our flying history.
    Delta won’t acknowledge your complaint, valid as it is…nor would any airline. They have to pay people to REALLY handle complaints (they won’t) and they’d have to make restitution (they don’t, very often anyway).
    So the experience for ANY air traveler, even guys like you and me who have frequent flyer numbers and miles and points and club memberships….we really all get the same lousy experience because it just boils down to airlines getting us from a to b.
    Whether or not its on time or friendly or clean isn’t important. Sorry you had to learn that the hard way.
    The good news is there ARE some nice folks at airlines, American Airlines was very helpful to me last week. So don’t give up on the people….just the industry.
    Best always,
    – Peter

  2. With all the hassles I’ve had on Air Canada flights, I’m still happy to have Elite status and I could not say that the service and quality of the lounges/airports in Canada are not impressive, because they are quite good.
    I’ve actually had great experiences on most airlines… I guess Delta REALLY shocked me, considering my perception of what their brand (and American airports) “should” be – in terms of comparison to Canada and abroad.

  3. What I find so interesting about this posting is that no one at Delta has responded in 6 days.
    One of the toughest lessions traditional marketers are going to need to learn is that they have lost control over the discussion of their brand.
    Imagine if someone senior at Delta had responded to this post, honestly, tried to explain what they could hand appologize honestly for what they couldn’t. It wouldn’t change Mitch’s experience, but it might alter your feeling’s about the brand. Just my $.02 Cdn.

  4. My guess is that it’s hard to respond when you’re not listening.
    A response – of any kind – would definitely shift my feelings and, more importantly, open this up to a conversation.

  5. Hi Mitch,
    A very interesting open letter and frustratingly similar to an experience I had earlier this summer on Delta when flying from DC to Santiago via Atlanta. I discussed it in my July 20 blog, pasted here in case you are interested.
    Suffice to say that your visit here to Singapore and the regional travel you experienced, from great airports to great airlines, is not likely to happen in the US anytime soon unless there is a credible effort made by airline executives to practice what they preach. Sadly, most US fliers travel only within the US and, therefore, do not fully appreciate how bad airlines are in the US. Much of the rest of the world is far ahead of the US when it comes to airline management, airport design and customer service.

  6. Thanks for adding color to the conversation John.
    Being from Canada, I guess I might be spoiled a little bit and used to a certain level of better services and quality. Though, there are some Canadians who are equally unhappy with the airline carriers here.
    Ultimately, this is a branding and perception issue that is impacted by the overall experience. It’s a big Marketing challenge that is only overshadowed by the actual operational challenge.

  7. Having worked in the airline business for 7 years in a variety of positions, I can honestly say I’m not surprised.
    While there are a myriad of factors for airlines suffering in terms of levels of customer service, I think the biggest issue is staff.
    Let’s face it, airlines are a customer service business and not a bus. The plane may not be painted properly, the signage in the terminal may no be up to date and the onboard food may suck – but if the staff treat you well, it makes up in many cases.
    I’ve never been a big union person but companies ultimately get the unions they deserve. And airlines (both Canadian and US) have for the most part treated their staff like crap in recent years.
    Look at what United did to their pensioners:
    Air Canada employees have taken pay-cut after pay-cut while their CEO and Chairman make millions in salary and stock options.
    If you look at truly successful airlines in North America (Southwest and Westjet) their employees share in the growth and equity in the company. They have a stake in its success. That’s not the case elsewhere including the likes of Delta.

  8. Funny how everybody is an expert at running an airline. Face it, when the airlines were deregulated, you got cheap fares, and service suffered. Airlines run on ridiculously thin margins, so to blame Delta for poor facilities at JFK is stupid. Do you expect Delta to spend billions of dollars it doesn’t have to bulldoze the place and start fresh? Guess what, NYC isn’t ponying up any cash to upgrade, as many communities do.

  9. Thanks for the comment Joe Blow (nice name). I fly weekly and I don’t buy the cheap tickets, but let’s put all that aside.
    If you’re going to suck, don’t go around marketing yourself around innovation, change and great experiences. That’s the crux of the Blog posting, not how desperate the industry is.
    Maybe acknowledging the changes and thanking people for their patronage during these trying times would be more appropriate (and honest).

  10. Mitch
    You will be happy to hear that Joe Kolshak has now been hired by United. He comes with a truly terrible reputation from the pilot’s at Delta. As a united pilot I’m expecting Joe to be used by Glenn Tilton as a hammer to attempt to reduce costs and sick time in their transparent attempt to get that one last bit of money out of our dying company via elevating the stock price just enough to make some hay from their newly minted 8M share executive equity compensation plan.

  11. Thank you for not greedily and self-importantly demanding a personal letter of apology and free first class tickets. It makes your piece more effective (and readable).

  12. I contacted Delta Airlines in order to cancel a flight that I had booked in September 2008. In November 2008, I discovered that I was expecting my second child, and in December 2008, I was advised by my physician that due to my pregnancy being high risk and having a dangerously positioned fibroid in my uterus, it was recommended that I not travel during the last four weeks of my pregnancy, which is the month of June 2009. My trip was booked for June 6, 2009. I spoke with Courtney, a representative at Delta, and explained the medical circumstances for requesting a cancellation of the flight. I also offered to have my physician fax a letter to the airline. After placing me on hold, she came back stating that she had spoken to her supervisor, and they both found it hard to believe that I would know that I could not travel in June by December. After recovering from the shock of their rudeness and insensitivity, as I thought that I was being proactive by contacting the airline the moment that I realized the situation in order to cancel, I requested to speak with a supervisor. Courtney got back on the line after placing me on hold again, and stating the she was sorry for the \”way it came out\” and that she realized that it sounded very hard after she said it. She then offered a medical waiver to me. After she placed me on hold again, a woman named Renee Davis, ID G9, came onto the line and stated that I would not be able to cancel the flight, nor would I be able to obtain a medical waiver. Again I offered to have my doctor fax a letter to the airline, but Davis stated that the tickets were dirt cheap and that I had to use them. When I stated that she was being unreasonable and inconsiderate of an unforeseen medical situation, she said that her mind was not change and that she was going to note the account that the tickets are not to be canceled under any circumstances. She also told me that my doctor had no authority over Delta Airlines. I asked to speak with her manager, she refused, then disconnected the call. I sent an email to the Customer Service Director about the horrific ordeal and how insensitive their employees were. I later found out that many airlines require a doctor\’s note in order for a pregnant woman, over seven months to within two weeks of their due date to fly as a precaution.

  13. As a first time traveller with Delta my experience of the onboard aircraft was diabolical. From the very beginning of the flight the attitudes of the flights attendants was sharp and arrogant as if they didn’t want to be asked to do anything. I almost felt as it they were just rough. One particular stewart attendant comes to mind – when I was given a faulty pair of earphones at the beginning of the flight alerted one of the attendants via the bell. When eventually the stewart in question came to assist me he abruptly switched off the bell which was above my head first and half listened to my request. I was then left waiting an hour for his return – even after reminding him! During this time all the inflight entertainment had started in which I was still looking around for someone to assist – this was even after the first set of refreshments were catered for. No flights attendants during this time were even keeping an eye on the customers, none were to be seen in the aisles so I couldn’t alert anyone else. Again, I used the bell and another attendant came – which led to more waiting for a replacement head set to watch a movie! Eventually a lady across from me gave me hers as she wasn’t using them. An hour later again, the orginal stewart came to me saying he forgot (no apology) and had a pair in his hands. When I pointed to my headset which I had on, he threw the pair from behind me at my table and said ‘have them anyway!’ I could not believe it. Later during the flight, a lady infront of me used her bell to alert a request and again one of the flight attendants greeted her with the same attitude as my experience – she abruptly turned off the bell and after she listened to the passengers request, the flight attendant turned and threw up her eyes at her for all to see! When I had been queuing for the toilets in this section an onboard flight attendant was using the toilet before me and I couldn’t believe the state she had left it after use – it was shockingly disgusting for a member of staff! My boyfriend had asked for a second piece of cheese and some water to take medication some time after and he was greeted with a filthy look as if it were a scene from Oliver Twist. The staff in the section of the airplane we were in were revolting in manner, attitude and hygiene (cue toilet experience). Upon disembarking the aircraft I asked for the head stewartess to alert her of my experience and I was told they were not allowed to give any names out. As I was not happy with this I asked again at another section nearing the exit door. There, near the pilots I spoke to the head stewardess who agreed she was aware of the problem – and said she had already noticed their behaviour herself. This lady was the only professional person amongst the service staff. She herself complained that all of the onboard service staff were young and new to the company therefore indirectly implying she was completely aware of their bad behaviour. When I remet with the orginal stewart again at the door I pointed him out to the had attendant – again he seemed disinterested. This is completely unacceptable for a long haul flight on every level. I am totally shocked with the experience. I had been looking forward to fly with Delta – and to say this was the result of my first experience is horribly distasteful.
    Also – who does the marketing for international travels for Delta – they should be ashamed of themselves. As a senior marketing professional myself – the navigation map on the inflight entertainment screen made no sense to the everyday traveller. I even started to redraft it myself onto a piece of paper as how it should look as it was so embarrassing. The content which sat under the navigation map was equally bad. Eg. The onscreen questionnaire made no reference whatsoever to the onboard experience to catering, staff, their level of professionalism etc – all the common elements one would expect to see on the client satisfaction survey. But for some reason Delta’s counterpart mentioned none of this and instead focussed their feedback on questions like how clean the window Were and whether you could see any starches on it!! That and, could you see any stains on the carpet?!
    Yes, one would expect to see a question covering general cleanliness but why would anyone in their right mind attribute half the survey to it? Another question I remember was relating to whether the functionality of onscreen set worked? I can only assume the answer is yes to this when I’m using the onscreen questionnaire.
    Really – is in comedy value to the everyday traveller who uses Delta. I can now understand why they have slipped in their position as the traveller of choice. Who ever heads up this king of poor marketing?

  14. PS It’s also worth noting the packaging of the snack food could not be opened unless you had a very sharp pair of teeth / or you had managed to sneak onbaord a pair of scissors (which obviously is not permitted). This again falls under marketing.

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