Delta Air Lines just showed United and American how to really please customers

Sometimes, airlines do keep their promises, it seems. This will especially please quite a few business flyers.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Reviewed by Alyson Windsor
Delta plane

And inside, all is quiet and everyone's happy.

(A screenshot from a Delta video.)

Chris Matyszczyk/screenshot

What do customers really want?

When it comes to airlines, this simple question has enjoyed ever-changing answers as the years have gone by.

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Once, airline customers wanted comfort. In recent years, they've realized this is now impossible. Unless they pay a disproportionate -- for the majority -- amount of money.

Customer expectations have rather dipped toward hoping the flight will be on time -- even as airlines pad their schedules with barely concealed humor.

Or toward even hoping the flight won't be canceled.

If there's one secret thing, though, that airline customers would really like it's for airlines to actually keep their promises.

Please attempt to salute, therefore, Delta Air Lines, which just sneaked a promised gift toward customer consciousness.

Four years ago, Delta CEO Ed Bastian expressed the belief that Wi-Fi should be free. On planes, that is. He admitted there were obstacles, mostly of the technological kind. You certainly don't want to promise free Wi-Fi -- something that only JetBlue has managed with relative success -- and then incite customer kvetching.

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After all, none of the big US airlines has managed to deliver on free Wi-fi. Even when you have to pay -- sometimes extortionate amounts akin to $40 -- the quality of the signal can be, well, painful.

Yet here is the Wall Street Journal insisting that, in 2023, a "significant portion" of Delta's planes will enjoy free Wi-Fi. And here is Bastian confirming the news at CES.

The airline has been in testing for some time, using Viasat's technology. (Intelsat works with T-Mobile to offer free wifi on various airlines, including Delta.)

Recently, Delta has been offering free Wi-Fi to its more exalted frequent flyers. Yes, they might not be able to enter a Delta lounge these days, but at least they might get free Wi-Fi in the air.

And now, you might too.

It's worth wondering how much free Wi-fi might influence a customer's choice of airline. It seems as if a considerable proportion of flyers want to be online all the time they're in the air. (Me, I'm quite happy to be detached for a while.)

If it's free, that's an incentive. An equally fine incentive, however, is whether it works, which still doesn't always appear to be the case.

Yet as airlines struggle with seemingly every element of customer service -- often because of airlines' own, self-centered, revenue-grabbing decision-making -- reliable, free Wi-Fi could create a material differentiation between Delta and rivals such as United and American Airlines.

This may be especially poignant for American, as it has been staunch in tearing out seatback screens and encouraging passengers to use their own devices and stream entertainment. Which some may find deeply myopic.

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Oddly, Delta has always committed itself to seatback screens, while United began to rip them out and had a peculiar conversion to bringing them back.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to keep passengers quiet. Or, as Delta's chief customer experience officer Allison Ausband put it: "For us, as we look at that onboard experience, we want our customers to be as stimulated as they want to be in the air."

(Please don't go there.)

If passengers are absorbed in their own worlds, they'll likely cause less trouble for the cabin crew -- or, indeed, for other passengers.

It's uplifting, however, to see an airline make (relatively) large promises and take measured steps toward delivering on those promises.

This doesn't always happen. Some might say it doesn't often happen.

What does happen with airlines, though, is that when Delta does something others follow. It could be, then, that if the free Wi-Fi rollout is successful for Delta, its competitors will take the leap.

Who, though, will manage it well enough?

No, I know it's not going to be Southwest. This is technology we're talking about.

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