The Delta of pre-deregulation days was largely an
entity that defined its own niche. The primary focus of the airline was
to serve communities in the Southeastern United States, both by
providing air services as well as being a corporate citizen of the
region. Delta was more than just a transportation provider or an
employer - it was a way of life. Thus the "Delta family" was born. In an
era of regulation where each airline could pick and choose where it
could compete, Delta was able to let the availability of appropriate
"family members" be the factor that determined the pace of their growth.
The employees loved the airline and vice-versa. The "Spirit of Delta" is
a classic example of this mutual respect. There was no employees versus
management struggle that characterizes labor relations in the industry
today. Management were employees and employees were management.
Deregulation changed that once and for all. It
created an environment where universal accessibility was the only way
for a network carrier to compete. Some airlines like American and United
chose growth as the means towards achieving this universal
accessibility, while others like Delta and Northwest chose consolidation
via mergers and acquisitions.
The first nail in the Delta family coffin was
the merger with Western. Both airlines had very strong corporate
cultures, but the cultures were simply not compatible. As the surviving
entity, Delta essentially required that the Western folks shape up to
the "Deltoid" mold, something that was very hard to accept for the
Western folks who would always be considered outsiders. To this day,
almost 2 decades later, longtime Delta employees refer to each other as
"original" and "ex-Western".
Nonetheless, despite a few acrimonious issues
arising, the amalgamation of Western into Delta was largely painless
compared to other transactions of the day (remember, this was the era of
Frank Lorenzo running amok with his acquisition machine). The Western
employees settled down in their role as stepchildren of the airline
doing their own little thang out in the west, for the most part away
from the core Southeastern markets.
Then came the death of Pan Am, throwing up a
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an airline to capitalize by
scavenging the international routes of this dying behemoth. With all the
other major competitors having already made their moves, Ron Allen made
a play first for the whole enchilada and subsequently just the tasty
fillings. Volumes have been written about the way that Allen handled the
transaction, but the end result was that he was perceived by PanAm
employees to have reneged on his word and caused the final nail to be
driven into the coffin of the blue meatball. This was scarcely the right
time for Delta to try and amalgamate these same people into the
tight-knit Delta family.
In the end, that was what destroyed the Delta
family. The PanAm folks came in with a chip on their shoulders, both
from what they perceived as Delta's role in killing their airline as
well as the standard gripes over seniority, pensions, etc... that
accompany every transaction. Costs spiralled as Delta scrambled to
integrate incompatible systems and aircraft into their own operations.
The increasing costs forced Ron Allen to launch Leadership 7.5 which
only served to alienate the most loyal of the remaining "original
Deltoids". The point of no return was crossed.
I have a soft spot for Ron Allen partly because
we share the same alma mater of Georgia Tech, but mainly because I think
he was the last true nuts-and-bolts airline chief in the United States.
He gave his life to Delta and without a doubt would have given his life
for Delta. That alone inspired loyalty among the few Deltoids he had yet
to alienate and kept him in the drivers seat for so long before making
an inglorious exit to stage left.
Enter Leo Mullin, the Harvard man from a
Chicago utilities firm. For an airline that had never even hired a chief
executive from another player within the industry, the choice of Mullin
to succeed Allen was a complete shock. To his credit, Leo implemented
programs that achieved the same results that Allen sought from
Leadership 7.5, but without the transparency that Allen had used to his
In the past, Delta had always been able to keep
unions out of their airline by treating the employees fairly and
generously, thus creating an atmosphere of trust. The AFA unionization
vote of 2002 was a watershed event in that Delta succeeded in keeping
unions off property again, but did so by cultivating an atmosphere of
lies, fear and mistrust. They then went and stabbed their employees in
the back by reneging on many commitments they had been made during the
anti-union campaign. This is merely one example of the "us versus them"
mentality that has pervaded the airline. You simply cannot unite to
compete with an external threat when you are too busy fighting your own
civil war. Alas, that is where Delta has fallen.
Now that the Delta employee is disillusioned by
the airline, obviously that malcontent will pass down to the consumer.
Remember, the original Delta family was a community affair consisting
not only of the Delta employees, but also the regular customers who were
recognized as Flying Colonels and Flying Orchids. Now that the employees
themselves no longer feel part of the family, nor do the consumers. The
difference of course is that consumers always have a choice, whereas
employees rarely have a similar luxury.