The Fragility of Optimized Systems

Delta Air Lines designed and optimized a system to pack the seats on their flights and extract maximum revenue from passengers by charging for every element of an airline trip. The process is called revenue maximization. A senior Delta executive once told me, “We try to pull feathers until just before the goose honks.”

Delta’s system becomes very fragile when off-normal situations arise, potentially causing enormous grief for thousands of passengers. The optimized system has no slack, no resources for responding to off-normal situations.  If there were slack resources, Delta would have eliminated them to increase profits, the only metric that really matters to them.

Earlier this week, weather in Atlanta delayed flights, in my case returning from Los Angeles en route to Washington.  Delays added to delays.  Passengers just waited and waited. Upon landing, hours were consumed waiting for a gate. Whole days were lost, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, due to Delta’s gross incompetence.

“Delta apologizes for your inconvenience. We appreciate your patience.”  This is Delta’s tag line. I hear it on every flight for one reason or another.  However, Delta talks service but does not deliver it. They are too focused on maximizing revenue to pay attention to service. Passengers become incensed and Delta just repeats their tag line.

As my flight was delayed by progressive half hours, a passenger asked the agent why the delay was always 30 minutes. She responded, “That is all we are allowed to tell you.” The passenger asked, “So when is this flight really likely to leave?”  She answered, “We have absolutely no idea. This could go on for several hours and then we may cancel the flight.”

It is rather amazing that many of my worst experiences in life are associated with Delta. This has fostered visceral negative emotions with anything I see or hear about Delta. There are very few, if any, other things that can prompt such negative emotional responses.

What happened to air travel?  When I first traveled with Delta in the 1980s, it was a quite enjoyable experience.  I fondly remember the ice cream sundaes on my frequent Atlanta-California trips.  I also remember my worldwide adventures, typically ending in London when I would relax with Delta who would “take me home.”

My million miler colleagues agree that those times are long gone.  Delta is now an adversary who is focused on extracting revenue from you.  Quality of service is now a joke, glittery words that mean absolutely nothing.  Delta and other airlines are totally focused on what we can do for them.

Leave a Reply