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It’s a Delta-focused post, so I had to pick something from the Delta Heritage Museum for the last day of sponsorship by The Airchive. This is an image of one of the many aircraft that Delta has at the museum, a 1940-vintage DC-3. I haven’t been out to the museum in years, but I know it has grown by leaps and bounds since then. If you can’t make it yourself, The Airchive has an incredible number of photos available.
Though airlines have rarely been willing to go down this path before, Delta decided early on that it was going to bank on making health and safety a differentiator through this pandemic. That plan has now gone into overdrive with the airline announcing it has hired away Dr Henry Ting from the Mayo Clinic to be its newly-created Chief Health Officer. As a marketing strategy, Delta’s fixation in this area may pay off, but it could also backfire in more ways than one.
In recent history, airlines have been very hesitant to market based on health and safety, primarily because it’s impossible to control. Back in the early days, airlines talked about being safe, because they had to reassure a skeptical public on behalf of the industry as a whole. But as soon as there was an accident — and there were a lot of them in those days — that message became hugely problematic. This continued well beyond when you think it would have become irrelevant.
This Time article points back to the 1980s when Pan Am talked about being safe… until a terrorist bombing brought down flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. You just don’t see those kinds of arguments anymore, because the risk isn’t worth the reward in an era where pretty much all US airlines are viewed as safe. Of course, health was never much of an issue, so the focus was more on aircraft safety. That has now changed dramatically during the pandemic.
It can be argued that health as a differentiator is different from the traditional definition of safety. It isn’t identical, of course, but there are important similarities. Of course, it won’t be as dramatic when something goes wrong. The shock value isn’t the same as when an airplane crashes and scores are killed instantly. But the potential for disaster is still there, and avoiding a health-related problem is largely out of the airline’s control.
That’s not to say that the industry shouldn’t be talking about health precautions on the whole. Yes, all airlines have cuddled up with a variety of partners ranging from Clorox to the Mayo Clinic. American has received GBAC certification. United has “earned” some other presumably bogus certification. (I see Delta has received this as well now.) All of this helps airlines to present an aura of safety about flying in general, but the airlines aren’t saying that they are better than others, implicitly or explicitly. They’re just trying to say that flying in general is safe and they are taking steps to make sure you understand that. If someone gets sick, they won’t be happy, but it won’t be a PR disaster. This is where I see Delta having gone in a different direction than the others.
Delta started off by aggressively talking about its cleanliness efforts, and it took a stand on blocking middle seats. None of that crossed a line. When I really started scratching my head was when the airline decided to reassign Mike Medeiros to become VP of Global Cleanliness. This seemed like a knee-jerk reaction that went further than necessary to reassure people during what is a temporary pandemic impact. (When this actually ends… well, that’s unclear. Let’s just hope it’s not “temporary” like the 30+ year old Dulles midfield concourse.)
Then, by not ending the block on middle seats despite there being limited health benefit, Delta has now tried to step further away from the pack by marketing itself as safer to fly than the others. I don’t think it was the right move, but if there is a marketing benefit to be had, Delta is the one getting it. But now, Delta has gone way beyond this by hiring an actual Chief Health Officer away from the Mayo Clinic.
If Delta wanted to make a statement, it has done so. But who is actually listening to this statement? The customers that are paying attention are those who will be hyper-sensitive to flying these days. Yes, the blocked middle seats help reassure some people even though it provides a negligible benefit in preventing the transmission of disease. When that ends as it inevitably must, Delta will be left with little meaningful differentiation except for having two well-paid execs. Other attempts to leverage having a CHO might not go so well.
Chances are the Chief Health Officer will be largely forgotten externally until there’s an outbreak of any kind that’s tied to a Delta flight. Sure, Delta can clean its airplanes, but there is always a risk of significant disease transmission onboard, albeit not a large one for all airlines. If that were to happen and it turned into a super-spreader event, well, Dr. Ting is going to be in high demand. This isn’t just about COVID-19. Anyone getting severely sick and/or dying on an airplane can easily become news, and the spotlight will shine on Delta’s efforts. It won’t be a good look when it happens.
The problem is that no matter what Delta does, it still can’t always control what happens, just as is the case with airlines and accidents. People board airplanes sick all the time, and it’s possible they don’t get anyone else sick on the airplane. But airplanes transport people from one end of the world to the other, and that means they are the vessels that allow for spread. Take that first US case of the Brazilian variant of COVID-19 that showed up in Minneapolis/St Paul. You think they walked into the US? Nope, that came via airplane. And while I don’t know which airline was flown, the fact that it was a local resident returning from Brazil means it’s entirely possible that Delta was the vessel. Why couldn’t the Chief Health Officer stop that? (I’m not serious, but you get the point.)
That’s just the customer impact. Now, think about employees. There are several employee causes related to health and safety that have generally been pushed out of the limelight. Lately, so-called “fume events” have started to get more airplay. That’s what happens when toxic chemicals seep into the air on an airplane, usually due to a maintenance issue related to the bleed air system. The LA Times recently did a piece on this that, while having some issues, still brings attention to the problem. And there’s even a movie out from a former British Airways pilot called Everybody Flies that I previewed talking about the impact on crews.
Pilots and flight attendants have had concerns about these events for years, and now that Delta has a Chief Health Officer, there’s no reason to think that labor won’t try to use that as a way to get something done about it. The problem is… there isn’t much Delta can do. Short of ordering a fleet of 787s — the one current generation aircraft that doesn’t use engine bleed air — Delta can’t really do anything except fix the problem when it occurs.
All of this could be a negative, but is there a positive? It’s possible. If Delta is able to make strides to improve health and safety — and if people still care about that once the pandemic is over — then it will benefit. I just have a hard time understanding how that happens. Once the pandemic is over, I expect most people will just stop paying attention… except for labor groups. That could create headaches for the airline for years to come while customers go back to looking for cheap and convenient options.