ATLANTA - Delta Air Lines, trying to fight its low-cost competitors, is renewing its focus on one of its strengths of the past: Customer service.
For years, Delta was considered one of the best at fostering customer loyalty through friendly and helpful employees, short waiting times, quality in-flight food service and good on-time performance.
But the airline industry slump following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks changed that, as the country’s third-largest airline laid off 16,000 employees and concentrated simply on surviving.
‘‘I used to call it the deluxe Southwest,’’ said Terry Trippler, an industry expert with the online travel service cheapseats.com in Minneapolis, referring to Southwest Airlines, which, along with Air-Tran, is one of the low-cost carriers Delta is fighting.
‘‘They’ve lost it, and customers noticed. Then AirTran pops up with smiling friendly people and suddenly people had something to compare Delta to in Atlanta, and that’s why AirTran is where they are today.’’
Chief executive Leo Mullin says he is committed to fixing the problem. Last month, he sent a memo to the staff stating Delta is returning full attention to delivering what passengers value most — quality customer service.
The changes are especially important, he said, because low-fare carriers are poaching what had been Delta’s traditional business and more people are routinely driving distances of up to 200 miles rather than taking short flights.
‘‘I think the customer experience in 2002 and even the early part of 2003 was not as good as it should have been,’’ Mullin said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. ‘‘I have basically decreed and said to everybody we’ve got to decree the survival period is over and get back to what has made Delta great over the years, which is a real concentration on customer service and that is what we’re about right now.’’
Among the customer complaints the airline received over the last two years were changes in Delta’s frequent flier program, not enough staff available to answer questions and the increasingly worn appearance of airplace cabins. The airline’s on-time performance is about in the middle of the pack among major carriers, but executives say that has improved considerably and is around 80 percent.
As he waited for his baggage after getting off a Delta flight this week at the Atlanta airport, Frank Ortiz, a 21-yearold from Panama City, Fla., who does communications work in the Air Force, complained about the cramped plane cabin. He also said the airline has lost his baggage a number of times over the years.
And, he said, ‘‘I don’t think I’ve ever had food on Delta. It would be nice.’’
After discontinuing its free meal service on many flights, Delta is now selling food onboard. It also recently eliminated the $5 some passengers had to pay for in-flight entertainment. Delta also has moved ticket counter agents to make them more accessible for customers. This week, Delta said it will test a new service catered to business travelers on flights from Atlanta to Houston and Kansas City that will offer free coffee, a newspaper, a broader selection of snacks and in some cases, free beer or wine.
Told about the meals-forsale program, Ortiz said that wouldn’t interest him.
‘‘I could probably buy better food once I got to the airport,’’ he said.
Another Delta passenger, Dwight Sommers, a 58-year-old health care consultant from Bowdoin, Maine, said the service on his first-class flight to Atlanta was top-notch, but he complained about the nearly $800 ticket price.
Overall, he said the service on Delta is better than on other airlines he’s flown on.
‘‘If you’re in first class, it’s always good service,’’ Sommers said. Of his trips in Delta’s coach class, Sommers said, ‘‘That’s the cattle car.’’
Rich Cordell, Delta’s senior vice president for customer service, said the airline is using technology to correct some of the customer service problems.
Delta has installed selfservice kiosks in many terminals to allow customers to get boarding passes without having to stand in line at a counter. For people who miss a connecting flight or are subject to a cancellation, new devices being installed in the gate areas allow customers to get a printout of their new boarding pass on the next available flight, which the airline automatically rebooks them on.
Electronic gate displays with more information are being installed and Delta is working with the Transportation Security Administration to speed the flow of passengers through the terminal.
‘‘Yes, we’ve introduced technology into our airports, but we’ve also changed our employee roles,’’ Cordell said.
Ray Neidl, an airline analyst with Blaylock & Partners in New York, said Delta’s customer service issues are similar to those at other major carriers that have had to make significant cutbacks in the last two years. He said the Delta has fared pretty well overall.
‘‘If you lose the business traveler, you’ll never be able to get those yields back up,’’ Neidl said. ‘‘It’s especially important for Delta to keep its service reputation up.’’
Mullin acknowledged that Delta’s cutbacks have affected employee morale, and that in turn has hurt customer service. One way he’s tried to deal with that problem is to make himself available to talk with pilots and flight attendants.
‘‘They’ve been battered a bit by the circumstances that have occurred,’’ Mullin said. ‘‘Who could not? It’s been very hurtful to lose 16,000 of your valued colleagues and have all of that change your entire relationship. So we’re working hard on the employee morale situation in order to build that sense of spirit back into the place as well.’’
Trippler said he is pleased Delta is concerned about slipping customer service, but wants to see more improvements. ‘‘If Mullin says that’s something he regrets, give him credit for saying that,’’ he said. ‘‘I hope that Delta returns to the type of airline that it was at one time.’’