Customer service, user experience and empathy on a Delta flight

It can be tough when working in a digital world not to draw parallels when it comes to our everyday interactions with the physical world.

One of those interactions occurred recently on a Delta flight from New York to Heathrow.

Delta is not an airline I would normally consider for business or leisure travel primarily as I don’t have any previous experience either good or bad. On this occasion, my client had arranged flights so Delta it was.

Initial thoughts booking

As soon as my confirmation arrived I logged on to check if I could pay a fee for an extra legroom seat. Delta does not sell seat upgrades but do have a slightly premium offering called Comfort +. This is by no means as “premium” as Virgin’s Premium Economy product but it is considerably cheaper. For a fixed $89 I would get another 4” of legroom (no extra seat width), more seat recline, premium video content, premium snacks, enhanced headphones and a sleep pack. As I am 6ft1” tall the 4” was worth the fee several times over in my book.

I quickly paid the upgrade fee then realised that the return flight was really full and I would not be able to upgrade at this time.

The flight

Amazing flight, fantastic service, fast boarding, friendly staff - Delta you nailed it - and I will certainly be flying with you again. I forced myself to try the wine - even though it was a relatively early flight - and it was great. Lunch was a steak and blue cheese salad and rates as the best food I have had on a plane outside of business class.

The extra legroom was great, and value wise it was an amazing product, on a flight of up to 10 hours I would opt for this over Virgin’s Premium Economy for the cash saving it provides.

The return booking process

I checked back daily to see if a Comfort + seat would become available. I even signed up to Expert Flyer for their seat alerts as I could choose a range of seats and get an email when one became vacant.

Late Thursday the alert arrived, but when I checked Friday morning the seat had gone. I kept checking over the course of the day and around midday the same seat became available. Either it was a coincidence or there was a long time lag between expert flyer seeing the seat and Delta releasing it. The return legroom was even better as it was a bulkhead seat and I could only just touch the wall with my legs straight out. The disadvantage was that I could hardly reach the controls for the TV and overhead lights, so this might need a rethink. 

Where it went wrong and the need for empathy

Around 1 pm I received a text message from Delta apologising that the flight was delayed an hour - I was not all that worried as it was the 4th of July weekend and I knew the traffic/security would be busy so it took the pressure of my journey to JFK.

I arrived at the airport, checked-in via a kiosk - call me old school but I hate checking in via an app or online! The experience was still good and every “touchpoint” was positive.

From this point onwards thought things went wrong, and it was one small part of the process - a single staff member that over the course of what turned into a 6 hour delay created undue stress and tension amongst the passengers.

The key learning from this story is that the cause of the delay was not Delta’s fault but their team handled the situation was incredibly poor.

JFK was hit by torrential rain, bad storms with lightning and tornado warnings which meant all their runways were closed. This then created a situation where Delta didn’t have enough gates for the number of planes needing to embark.

All of this could be easily explained to customers but was not, the gate staff got increasingly stressed, and verging on difficult. They couldn’t understand why their actions were making the situation worse. The tannoy was virtually impossible to hear, so passengers were obviously approaching the desk for feedback.


I can imagine that being gate staff where delays increase from an hour, to over four is not fun but had they handled the situation better I suspect their stress levels would have been vastly reduced and their job satisfaction increased.

One key missing ingredient was empathy, it was not their fault, or Delta’s fault that the fight was delayed and had they put themselves in their passenger's shoes it might have been a better experience for everyone concerned. At one point I stepped in as they refused to provide information to a passenger. He was pleasant and polite and each time I bumped into him after this exchange he expressed his surprise at how rude the staff were. He only wanted to know if a two hour delay was normal, his family were headed off on holiday and had a morning of site-seeing planned. The gate staff say they didn’t know, which unless they had just started that day has to be somewhat economical with the truth! 

All she needed to say was yes, they are, but this is an exceptional situation caused by the airport closing runways - finish this off with a- I hope this doesn't inconvenience you too much - and you have a happy passenger. My guess is that next time he comes to book a flight he won’t have any loyalty to Delta, and would only choose the airline again if they were considerably cheaper than AA, United or one of the other US carriers.

One poor staff member equates to one massively disgruntled passenger, do you have a touchpoint or feature on your website or in an app that could elicit a similar response?

How delta may have saved the day

As soon as the aircrew arrived at the gate the situation improved, and I am not sure if this is policy but the captain took control of the situation explaining the cause of the problem. 3 hours after the situation started customers were finally fully informed. He had empathy, he understood that it was incredibly inconvenient and explained that the weather had caused massive issues. He went on to explain the once the plane got to the gate then they needed to do pre-flight safety checks and would board us once they had a better idea of a departure time to avoid us sitting on the plane for hours. (A colleague sat on her Virgin flight for 3 hours versus our 1.5 or so)

Had anyone provided this level of communication in the previous 4 hours Delta would have had a plane of somewhat disgruntled passengers that understood it was not Delta’s fault, instead of passengers with a level of stress that had some customers hurling their luggage across the lounge.

In conclusion

I will book with Delta again, purely because of the Comfort + offering, and if it wasn’t for this product unless they were considerably cheaper I would more than likely avoid them based on this one experience. Would any airline have dealt with it better - I like to think so but maybe not. This could be a good time to evaluate your user experience as I suspect most businesses may have a similar issue hidden somewhere in their team, app or website.

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