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Southern Discomfort: After flying Delta, I miss Northwest

REUTERS/Eric Miller

“It’s a lot better than Delta,” my husband quipped as we boarded the bus that was to drive us down a rural highway to Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.

This was no luxury tour bus. We had caught the regular morning run from the small town of Colonia del Sacramento. It picked up farmers and villagers along the road. Six bucks apiece for the two-hour ride.

But he was right. It was a lot more comfortable than our Delta flight from Atlanta to South America. The seats were clean and comfortable with space for my husband’s long legs and support for my touchy back. The driver and his sidekick — Latin American buses routinely include an assistant — were courteous and helpful.

Indeed, everything on our travels in Argentina and Uruguay was better than getting there and back on Delta Airlines.

For many years, we have been Northwest Airlines frequent fliers. And we did our share of griping about “Northworst” as we watched gracious service and passenger comfort give way to harried staffs and cramped conditions. We knew, though, that nearly all of the airlines were sliding down the same hill.

Now, we are bracing for a steeper slide as Delta swallows Northwest. Get ready for Southern Discomfort.

The reasons begin with Delta’s planes. In the past few months I’ve flown Northwest to London and Amsterdam, KLM from Amsterdam to Nairobi and Kenya Airways from Nairobi back to Amsterdam. Every flight was on a modern European Airbus or similar aircraft where the comfortable seats have fold-out headrests and passengers get more legroom as well as several choices of movies to watch on individual back-of-the-seat screens.

My husband has flown Middle East Airlines in and out of Beirut, a route most airlines won’t travel because the city has periodically been a war zone. Coach seats were comfortable and service impeccable.

Rigid and tattered
To our dismay, the plane we boarded in Atlanta for the nine-hour flight to Buenos Aires last month was an older model Boeing. Seats were rigid and tattered. One tray table was cockeyed. Forget about movies; you could barely see the tiny, circa 1980 overhead monitors.

Delta has been an all-Boeing airline, which means it’s a very uncomfortable one. A few years ago, Northwest’s planes were ranked as the oldest in the industry. But it had done a lot of recent upgrading, to the relief of passengers paying for long hauls overseas.

Analysts predict Delta will have to buy new and different planes if it wants to compete for international travelers. Hear! Hear!

James Wallace, who covers aerospace for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, recently interviewed Delta Chief Executive Richard Anderson and reported: “Although Delta Air Lines has long been one of The Boeing Co.’s most loyal customers, don’t look for the world’s largest airline to buy new jets from just Boeing in the future.”

Anderson told Wallace “Delta will be an opportunistic purchaser of airplanes and that will include both Boeing and Airbus.”

Still, you have to wonder why Delta stuck with those old Boeings for international routes. It raises questions about the airline’s priorities and culture.

What I saw of the culture wasn’t encouraging.

First of all, Delta’s reservation site wouldn’t recognize my Northwest frequent flier status, so I made the reservation by phone (which cost $25). The window and aisle seats my husband and I wanted weren’t available, the reservation agent said. Take middle seats, she said, and you can swap for the seats you want when you check in at the airport.

How does that work? Well, Delta reserves some seats until the last minute, she said, and if they aren’t available, the gate agent can get other passengers to swap with you.

Oh, yeah, sure. Only someone who rarely flies would buy that line. Veteran travelers know that they have a better chance of winning the lottery than finding a passenger who is going to trade for a middle seat on a nine hour flight — especially on a plane where the seats are as cramped as this one was.       

We opted to reserve seats together further back in the plane.

After we shoehorned ourselves into them, the overhead bin fell open. My husband unbuckled, unwrapped his legs from the cubby hole of a space, got up and shut it. Open again. Unbuckle, unwrap, get up. So it went several times during the trip.

‘No, sir’
When the drink cart came down the aisle, the flight attendants charged $7 for alcoholic drinks.

“I’ll have a red wine please,” said the man in the seat behind me.

“If you wait until dinner, you can get one bottle free, but if you want it now, I have to charge you $7,” the flight attendant replied.

“Couldn’t I take it now and skip the wine that comes with dinner?” he asked.

“No, sir.”

Maybe it was the people who worked Northwest and not the corporation. But they would cut a corner for me here and there if it didn’t jeopardize safety or the bottom line.

A few years ago I went to the Minneapolis airport to help my 85-year-old mother through a plane change. She’d been visiting my nephew in New York, and was returning to her summer place in northern Minnesota. A thunderstorm hit, flights backed up, and she got off the plane three hours late — exhausted and white faced from the rough ride. Of course, she had missed her connecting flight; the next one was scheduled to leave Minneapolis at midnight unless storms hit again.

“Is there any way you could give her a seat on a flight tomorrow and let me take her to my house tonight for some rest?” I begged the Northwest gate agent.

She took a long look at my weary mother, winked at me, and said: “You know I was wrong. That midnight flight is full. I’ll have to give you a boarding pass for a morning flight.”

I like to think that’s an expression of the Minnesota culture. But Minnesota won’t be running the airline anymore. Wal-Mart Air will be.

Don’t expect a lot from an outfit that can’t bend the rules enough to give a guy his little bottle of red wine 15 minutes early.

Leaving Montevideo, we took a three-hour ferry ride across the wide Rio de la Plata to Buenos Aires. Air conditioned. Good sandwiches. Soft seats. “It’s a lot better than Delta,” my husband said.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Alec Beck on 12/02/2008 - 10:31 am.

    Hi Sharon. Interesting that we would have such different experiences. I am also a frequent flyer (former Platinum, how (to my great humiliation) Gold), so I’ve experienced all the Skyteam airlines. I will defend Northwest all day – they do a decent job under some difficult labor/management conditions. That being said, I’ve always preferred Delta for domestic travel (Continental even better). Their domestic equipment is easily better than Northwest’s, and better maintained. Flight Attendants on Delta seem to actually enjoy their jobs. I agree that the 767s and such used by Delta aren’t that great, but remember that it’s only been a few years that we’ve been able to fly on the A330s. Before that, it was all DC10s and 747s on Northwest. Those DC10s were brutal. There may have been a time (before my time) when Northwest conferred some hometown benefits, but I think that day’s been gone for awhile. I look forward to the merger.

    PS: No free drinks in overseas coach WILL be a problem, however…


  2. Submitted by Ferron Ferron on 12/02/2008 - 11:16 am.

    I think it’s important to distinguish between a plane’s interior and the model of the aircraft itself. I’m guessing you flew a Boeing 767-300 to Buenos Aires, a type operated on many long-haul routes by a variety of airlines.

    While it’s true these aircraft were delivered in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, the age of the aircraft is insignificant if the operator refits the cabin with newer seating and modern amenities. The cabin of an aircraft has everything to do with the airline who operates it and little to do with the aircraft type.

    On a trip home from London last winter, we flew a British Airways 767 which had received a newly outfitted cabin appointed with individual LCD monitors, new leather seats with adjustable headrests, updated lavatories, etc. It was just as comfortable as Northwest’s newer Airbus A330 aircraft or a BA’s much newer 777s.

    Boeing aircraft are my preference as a passenger any day, as they have bigger windows than Airbus models.

  3. Submitted by Adam Minter on 12/02/2008 - 09:38 pm.

    Over the last six years, I’ve flown Northwest’s routes between Detroit and Tokyo, and Minneapolis and Tokyo, more than thirty times. And in that six years, the decrepit 747-400’s that they use on those routes have become more uncomfortable, more tattered, and more unpleasant. Where to begin? Upholstery is often torn, headphone jacks are often inoperable. Free wine with dinner on Delta? Heaven! On Northwest, you pay $5 for alcohol at any point during the flight, and god help you if – during the course of the flight – you go to the galley and try to purchase a drink. The flight attendants – senior flight attendants with Northwest – are likely to roll their eyes and throw a fit.

    Now, complaining about international travel is an “uptown problem,” to be sure. But for those of who do it, things like service and a quality environment matter, and they matter alot. I’ve traveled on well over a dozen Asian airlines over the last decade, and all of them – ALL of them – exceed Northwest and Delta in terms of comfort and, above all, the quality of their service. Among those who fly the routes regularly, Northwest’s international flight attendants on Asian routes are a running joke for their grumpiness. On my last flight into Shanghai, the man in the seat next to me commented: “They act like we should be serving drinks to them.”

    I don’t expect any improvements when Delta takes over Northwest. But if I could have one wish fulfilled – one wish only – it is that the US airlines (and their flight attendants) would take a long, hard look at their Asian competition and do their best to emulate it. There’s simply NO competition.

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