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Delta Lessons

Posted by joshy on July 14, 2005 at 4:30 PM PDT

Okay. So I realize this is about two weeks late. I've been on vacation back home in Atlanta and then catching up on about 4 weeks worth of email, blogs, java.net forums, and even some features I promised to the Flying Saucer and
JDIC Misc projects. I actually wrote most of this over a week ago but just now got the time to finish it up. Enjoy!

I had a very nice experience flying home and learned a couple of valuable lessons.

Delta Lessons

Lesson One: redundant load balanced systems are good. I'm flying home to Atlanta today. Atlanta is now the home of the busiest airport in the country, Hartsfield-Jackson International House of Airplanes. Given that Atlanta is not the biggest city in the country (4.4 million vs over 10 for LA) how can this be? Well, it's because every other city the size of Atlanta has long since built a second airport.

Now I understand the desire for economies of scale. Adding capacity to an existing airport is cheaper per flight than building a new one. The problem is that the overhead grows with each new flight, to the point where adding a flight costs more than the flight is worth. Atlanta hasn't hit the point where the overhead exceeds the dollar value of a flight (or they would stop adding flights and raise prices). I do think Atlanta has hit the point where the social and comfort cost to the customer exceeds the overhead, though, and this is going to affect rider-ship eventually.

I'm flying to Atlanta but leaving out of San Jose. This is a great airport because it's small. I can be dropped off by the ticket counter for my airline, walk 50 feet to the security checkpoint, and go another 50 feet to the gate. This would have been a 20 minute process in Atlanta that would entail me walking close to a quarter mile and taking a mini-train. By pursuing maximum economies of scale at a single airport (and opposing the construction/improvement of other airports in Atlanta) they've created a system of constant bottle necks at every level of the system including: driving into the airport, parking, the ticket counter, security, getting to the gates, loading onto the plane. Other than than loading onto the plane every one of these bottle necks could be significantly reduced without affecting flight costs at all (which is the bulk of a plane ticket).

There's a reason we don't build computer systems like this. Bottlenecks and points of failure have caused us to redesign our systems to be distributed with multiple entry points and avoid having any single point of failure. The people who plan the airports in Atlanta need to learn this lesson.

Lesson Two: Listen to your customers. Delta has been really hurting. They command a premium over other airlines and have seen their marketshare eroded by the low cost carriers like Airtran. Delta has responded by cutting out extras like food. You now get no meal on a cross country flight. Not even some trans-atlantic flights, as Kimi discovered recently. Now it's just juice and pretzels! (the pretzel lobby made sure to get rid of the peanuts). This certainly isn't the way to encourage repeat business. Now there is nothing to justify their premium price. I pretty much only use them because of my existing SkyMiles.

The flight today seems a bit different, though. They haven't brought back hot meals but they are giving us more than just pretzels. I've just been handed a blue enjoy pack, consisting of raisins, crackers, cheez (it's certainly not cheese), and a couple of Oreos. We have also been promised a second package of food later on in the flight. It's not what it used to be but it's a start. It also lets them feed us with lighter food that doesn't require the heavy space-time consuming heating equipment. The've also stopped trying to lock you into their proprietary headphone scheme. Now you can buy a pair from them for two bucks (which you get to keep) or use your own. It seems that Delta is finally listening to their customers (or at least listening to their dropping gross revenues). Change is slow, but at least it's happening.

Now if only they could do something about these awful in-flight movies.