My eyes opened wide when an email came in from Delta Air Lines inviting me to an exclusive “#InsideDelta” behind-the-scenes tour of their headquarters in Atlanta. They’ve never opened up their doors before, so without much hesitation I rearranged my schedule to attend. They invited a handful of travel bloggers to check out their operation and meet their people—including CEO Richard Anderson. Here’s how it went down.
Delta and Porsche tarmac partnership
Delta flew us down in First Class and gave us the opportunity to experience the benefits of their unique tarmac partnership with Porsche—in which they pick up their most valued customers right at the jet (in Porsches) when they have tight connections. When I stepped off the plane, not the jetway, there was the driver holding my name on a placard (along with another blogger’s name), and into the car we went. The whole thing was a blur, but we went down the stairs that normally the staff use to load gate checked bags, and in a shiny and swanky Porsche Cayenne no less. My colleague Ramsey was told by his driver that on average, 75 people a day get picked up through the service in a total of eight cars.
On the 90-minute flight down from New York, I sat in seat 1C. During boarding a woman walking with visible pain had two people offer up their First Class seats as she slowly made her way down the aisle to coach. I was kicking myself for not being one of them but by the time my brain overrode my selfishness, the woman in row 2 and the man behind her had already volunteered their seats.
It turns out the man, who ultimately was the one to give up his First Class seat, was my friend Chris Sloan, the founder of the popular aviation site Airchive.com and the creator of the Travel Channel show International Airport 24/7: Miami. Chris is arguably one of the nicest guys in travel and recently lost his seven-year-old son Calder, aka Mr. Amazing, a few months ago in a freak pool accident (the pool light had faulty wiring and his son was electrocuted). Chris has set up a charity to raise awareness called the Calder Jacon Sloan Legacy Fund—and if you have the means, I encourage you to offer your support.
Renaissance Concourse Atlanta Airport Hotel
Delta put us up at the Renaissance Concourse Atlanta Airport Hotel. It’s an old hotel with a 11-story interior atrium. But all 387 guest rooms have been recently renovated, and the hotel now boasts that it has “vibrant soundproof guest rooms”—but I would like to know how they define vibrant. Maybe they meant “vibrate,” because that’s what the room does every time one of old Delta’s old MD80s lands. Fortunately, I slept very well and the noise didn’t bother me, even without earplugs. Overall, I really enjoyed my time at the hotel and I loved the fact that the rooms have balconies, which is a plane-spotter’s dream. The hotel also did a great job with Delta’s welcome reception, which it hosted in one of the suites. And everyone raved about their sundae bar.
The following morning (Monday) we all met in the lobby at 7:45 am to board the charter bus to Delta’s headquarters. It was just a 10-minute (if that) ride down the road. Once we cleared security we were in a bright conference room where they made introductions and went over the day’s agenda over a continental breakfast. The highlight was meeting Kevin Shinkle, the new Chief Communications Officer who used to be the business editor at the Associated Press.
Then the real fun started. Below is a quick recap of our schedule and what we saw, and at the bottom is a photo gallery with tons of photos. I will also post all of the other bloggers’ stories once they get uploaded.
Operations and Customer Center
Delta’s Operations and Customer Center houses a huge team that even includes their own meteorologists. Here, we learned about the reasoning and processes through which flights get cancelled—or don’t—when there’s bad weather or a lot of backup. Good to know: If you’re on a flight with an “UM” (Unaccompanied Minor) then you have a very low risk of your flight being canceled. Same goes for a lot of Delta’s ultra-frequent fliers. And I’m not talking about Delta Gold and Silver members as they don’t make the cut.
Operations daily briefing
We then got to sit in on Delta’s Operations and Customer Center daily briefing, wherein everyone around a huge oval conference table shares an update from their department. They discussed anything and everything that could disrupt operations that day, including world news, weather, staffing, and how many spare aircrafts are available (they call their planes “ships”). Some of the departments covered load control, charters, strategic planning, and customer care. The most interesting thing to me was that one of the team members said that Delta had 450 of Delta’s 360 passengers flying that day. 360 is Delta’s secret club of ultra-frequent fliers who spend a lot of money (FYI United’s is called Global Services and American calls its own Concierge Key). None of the airlines will discuss how many members they have in its club, so hearing that 450 were flying in one day was a bit of insight. They also said they were carrying 14,000 tons of cargo that day, which was a light day. The meetings lasts typically 20 to 30 minutes.
Airport coordination center tower tour
At 10:40 am we jumped back on the bus and drove down the road to the airport. On the way, Delta’s PR team handed out safety vests adorned with “#InsideDelta” (we got to take them home) and the same onboard snacks the flight attendants pass around in First Class, which made it fun. And boy did we get a lot of doubletakes walking through the airport wearing these bright vests. But even looking all official, it still took a while for us to get our “gate passes” to clear TSA security.
Airport coordination tower above Concourse A
Once through we took an old, slow elevator up to the airport coordination tower above Hartsfield-Jackson’s (ATL) Concourse A. These guys coordinate the assigning of gates and a whole lot more.
Baggage facility tour
Afterwards we toured the baggage facility, which I found fascinating. Apparently, 75% of Delta’s ATL traffic is for transfers, which means a lot of bags to move from one plane to another. They recently had to put a whole new baggage system in since their lost baggage numbers were previously horrendous but they have now improved to number two—as in second-best. Number one on that list is JetBlue, but they mainly do point-to-point flying which makes it a lot easier to transfer bags. Delta has over a 100,000 checked bags go through ATL on an average day.
Delta Sky Club tour
After touring the baggage facility we went into the new international terminal. It opened a couple years ago and it was nice, but not as nice as I thought it was going to be. From there we went to the Sky Club for lunch and to meet Jeff Robertson, VP Product Development, Sky Clubs & Marketing Communications (he used to be at SkyMiles). My favorite part about Delta’s Sky Club—besides the fact that I can get in for free using my Platinum American Express Card—is that a couple of their clubs have outdoor patios, including Atlanta’s. The other one is at JFK, but they’re hoping to soon offer them in other airports as well. I love to be able to go outside, get some fresh air, breathe in jet fuel, and do some serious plane-spotting.
New BusinessElite seats
After lunch we boarded an A330 that would be heading to Rome in a couple of hours. We were there to check out Delta’s new BusinessElite seats that are lie-flat. They seemed comfortable and I can’t wait to try them out on a long flight. I wish we could’ve stayed on the plane and flown to Italy.
Delta TechOps tour
At 2:30 pm we toured Delta’s TechOps, which was another short bus ride down the road. The place is massive (63 acres), and we even went inside a seven-story tall hangar door to see firsthand the craft and technical expertise that go into work on the engines.
Inflight Wi-Fi installment
We also saw a brand new plane being installed with Gogo’s Inflight Wi-Fi. I had no idea it was such a lengthy process. Here’s a timelapse video of a Virgin America plane installing Gogo’s ATG-4 Wi-Fi.
Social media lab tour
We then jumped back on the bus to go back to headquarters so we could get a tour of their social media lab. It was fun to see all their monitors and how this team supports reservations in assisting passengers with delayed or canceled flights. If you ever have a problem tweet @DeltaAssist or @Delta.
CEO Richard Anderson
The highlight of the whole experience was having a roundtable (the table wasn’t really round) discussion with Delta CEO Richard Anderson. I have newfound respect for the man, and he was open to answering questions about pretty much anything—including what’s going on in Seattle. One thing I found interesting and a bit archaic is that Richard prints all of his emails, responds to them in handwriting since he’s a slow typer, and has his assistant type them up and reply. He gets up early and does his homework (an early start for Richard is 4:30 am), which includes reading everything he needs to cover for the day. He also says he’s on top of his email and calls and “doesn’t touch paper twice.” The most surprising thing he told us, I thought, was that growing up in Galveston he hitchhiked everywhere. He was a real down-to-Earth guy and says he loves going on Backroads vacations. My buddy Chris Sloan recorded the whole conversation so I will link to his post when it’s up.
Dinner at Restaurant Eugene
For dinner Delta brought us to Buckhead to have dinner at Linton Hopkins’ Restaurant Eugene. Eugene is named after Linton’s grandfather and Linton himself is Delta’s chef for four of their premium cabin flights out of Atlanta (Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London and Paris). After Linton’s passionate speech about how the public should be demanding to know where their food comes and how he survived cancer, and then tasting his corn chowder, he has become my new favorite. Linton grew up just a mile from the restaurant and to this day lets all of his diners know where all of his food comes from. And because of Delta’s support for him and the different farms he’s outsourced to, the airline has made a huge difference in a whole number of lives—especially the diners because his food is so good. My colleague Seth Miller wrote a great story on Linton Hopkins “farm-to-tray-table” philosophy and you can read here.
Linton Hopkins tip: He says the best way to travel is to go to the farmer’s market the first day, wait for the chefs come and then follow them back to their restaurants to see where the fresh food is being served.
I have to tell you…as much as I like to rag on Delta’s frequent flier program (they have the worst redemptions in the industry and that was before they even went from distance- to price-based), I have a new respect for these guys. They run an unbelievably tight ship and it’s no wonder that Delta is an award-winning airline that is leading the industry in the United States in innovation, performance and customer experience.
-Seth Miller: The story behind Delta’s farm-to-tray-table BusinessElite meals
-Marshall Jackson: A Word About #InsideDelta