System-Enabled Incompetence

I wrote early last year about Delta Air Lines transforming a great airline into a bus line.  I really did not anticipate how bad Delta’s performance could get.

I was in Houston on Thursday waiting for a flight to Atlanta. When I checked in at the kiosk, Delta offered me the opportunity to stand by for an earlier flight, which I gladly accepted. Then the kiosk said “processing error” and printed a boarding pass that did not make sense.

I proceeded to a human agent who, after much typing, informed me that my non-sensical boarding pass reflected a change of equipment (i.e., aircraft type).  She also put me on standby for the earlier flight, which she informed me was two hours late due to “weather in Atlanta.”  I called Atlanta to learn that the weather was beautiful with sunny, blue skies.

There are certainly quite appropriate reasons for delays. Why not use these as plausible explanations?  Instead, Delta provides explanations that are obviously wrong.  They apparently do not care that no one believes them. It does not matter — quality service, once their hallmark, is no longer a corporate value.

I went to the gate and asked the gate agent when they would process standbys. He said 45 minutes before departure and, oh by the way, I was not on the standby list. He added me and I jumped to the top of the list — I fly a lot.

Finally 15 minutes before departure the standby list was cleared and several people made it but not me. I pointed to the list and asked him how I, being on the top of the list, did not make the cut. He said that I was not really at the top of the list.

I waited a half hour or so and went back to the gate. I saw that I was on the top of the standby list for the next flight, which would depart an hour or two earlier than my now delayed original flight. I asked the agent if I was really at the top of the list. He told me that I was not on the list at all. Despite what he and I could clearly see on the publicly displayed standby list, his computer terminal said that I was not on the list.

Then good news, he told me that he could confirm me on this earlier flight, in fact in first class. He then typed for the next five minutes and finally handed me a boarding pass — Eureka!

I asked him why it took so long to generate a boarding pass. It seemed to me like an enormous number of keystrokes. He said. “This is not point and click. You have to memorize many, many codes, and then type them all in correctly.”

Waiting an extra couple of hours is irritating but not a major issue, especially if you fly often with Delta. However, dealing with pervasive organizational failure is very frustrating. Delta’s personnel have no idea if they are telling you things that have any basis in reality. Delta has, in effect, fostered system-enabled incompetence.

I am not suggesting that Delta’s gate agents and flight attendants are incompetent individuals. They tend to be well intended and very courteous as they try to meet your needs. However, Delta’s organizational system — their work processes and information systems — have resulted in their personnel not knowing what is patently clear to passengers, e.g., the weather in Atlanta is great and my name is right there at the top of the list.

So, the Delta bus line is increasingly becoming a really bad bus line. There may be some hope as Southwest has acquired AirTran and will become a major presence in Atlanta. They really know how to run a first-rate bus line.


  1. Thanks a bunch !:)

  2. Tom Leever says:

    Mary from Cork welcomes the Queen of England to Ireland despite her armed forces however occupying part of Ireland. The laying of a wreath by the Queen was regarded by quite a few to be a highly symbolic act.

  3. Came clueless, left worried. Thanks for the post. If a program is useful, it will have to be changed. Attributed to Laws of Computer Programming

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