Delta just offered a brave lesson in listening to customers, not tech

Everyone has their view of how the future of work will look. Delta Air Lines thinks the tech industry has got it all wrong.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Zoom will change nothing?

Screenshot by ZDNet

The tech industry always knows how the future will be.

Why, it's creating it, so it's got something of an inside track at the bookies.

Not everyone, however, is convinced about Techworld's slightly smug infallibility.

On Thursday, Delta emailed me to announce it had lost the GDP of a small, robust country. $12.4 billion.

Certainly, the coronavirus has wrecked airlines' ability to do much but get many free billions from the government. Working from home seems to be the new permanent way for many people.

You might think, then, that the analysts' call to herald such an announcement would be grim, brutal, and swift. Instead, Delta's executives looked into the future and insisted the tech industry has got it all wrong.

For many months, wise tech lords like SoftBank's Masayoshi Son and Melinda's Bill Gates have claimed that business travel will never be what it once was. Why, Zooming and Teamsing have made flying unnecessary, haven't they?

Not so long ago, Natarajan Chandrasekaran, chairman of Indian conglomerate Tata Sons, claimed he'd done $2 billion worth of deals in just five or six Zoom calls.

Yet here were Delta's executives insisting this was all hocus diluted with overripe pocus.

As The Points Guy reported, Delta CEO Ed Bastian mused: "I wouldn't draw the conclusion that corporate travel is impaired at all." 

At all? In any way? Not even in 12.4 billion ways?

Bastian and the airline's president Glen Hauenstein insist they have corporate travelers just where they want them. They believe vaccines will make an enormous difference.

Hauenstein also said the airline's determined decision to block middle seats -- amid considerable controversy as to whether filling middle seats increases the risk of getting the virus -- enhanced its image with corporate travelers. He said revenue premiums have never been as exalted.

"Customers value the Delta difference (including) the least amount of sellable capacity," he said.

Scarcity sells. Instinctively, every flyer prefers having an empty seat next to them. Unless it was supposed to be occupied by a lover who didn't turn up.

I still wonder whether Delta is entirely correct. Travel executives at tech companies have told me that they -- and, more delightfully, their bosses -- instantly see the savings that better video conferencing has brought.

Why would companies ever, some insist, revert to spending so much money on travel?

The CEOs of American Airlines and United believe nothing -- and certainly not the likes of Zoom -- can replace the face-to-face needs of business. Those needs, however, have surely undergone something of a modification in the last nine months.

I can believe that Delta has done its research. I can believe its corporate customers are telling it nice things. But as Teams and Zoom -- and even Webex -- accelerate the joys of their offerings, I'm not so convinced there'll be a swift -- or complete -- return to corporate flying. 

Delta's research is based on its business customers saying what they're going to do in the future. 40% say they'll be back to normal flying by 2022. I don't even know how I'm going to behave next week.

Moreover, the tech industry has a creepily effective way of altering habits we thought would last forever. Remember owning music? It's also very good at creating entirely new cost parameters that CFOs quite adore. Last October, Amazon said it had already saved $1 billion on corporate travel.

Then again, I do believe there'll soon be enormous enthusiasm for getting away from it all to anywhere sunny that'll let us in. Just so we can breathe quietly and forget 2020.

Wouldn't it be a beautiful twist of fortune if, in the near future, companies worked far harder at getting their employees to fly away and relax with their loved ones, rather than to eat steak and drink whiskey with someone they don't even like?

Editorial standards