AOL Mystery Flyer: Delta Airlines Report Card

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No hot food, no pillows and blankets, and on some flights, no complimentary water. What's left? The one thing that can turn a long, meal-less coach flight from an ordeal to a joyride is...friendliness: helpful airline personnel and flight attendants with a positive attitude.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be traveling coast-to-coast on ten of our country's busiest airlines as AOL's Mystery Flyer. And I'll be looking to answer one really important question: Is there a price for nice?



Read on to see how Delta Airlines scored on Friday afternoon's flight from New York to Florida:


How It Works:

After each of the ten flights I'm taking over the coming weeks, I'll judge the airlines on six areas of customer service, using a scale of one to five. My goal along the way is to be an average passenger with normal travel requests and questions. In no way am I going to bother flight attendants and airline personnel with unusual demands; I know these are very busy people. I'm not looking to push airline staff to the limit, but simply to judge their friendliness during the most common travel interactions faced by the flying public on a routine flight.

Here's how to decipher my 1-5 rating system:

1/5 means a flat out rude reaction to my requests
2/5 means an unfriendly reaction, although not necessarily rude
3/5 means a neutral reaction to my requests
4/5 means a friendly reaction with a smile
5/5 means friendly customer service that goes that extra distance
1. Operator's response to pre-flight requests (such as a seat change) when I called the airline's toll-free number the day of departure.
3.5/5: I called the toll-free number the day of my flight to inquire about my seat. The agent was friendly, telling me it was a window seat and that no other seats were available. I pushed the issue to make sure there wasn't something closer to the front of the plane, and he was apologetic, remained patient, and said that there wasn't. I then asked about the onboard services and he put me on hold to check; he returned a few seconds later to say there were snacks for sale and free soft drinks. I asked about onboard Internet and he said it wasn't available (turns out it was). The only thing I didn't like: at the end of the call, he asked if I needed a rental car, which I declined. Then he launched into a credit card spiel. After I firmly stated that I wasn't interested, he wished me a good day and we said goodbye.

2. Friendliness of the ticketing agent during the check-in process at the airport.
3/5: The line for full service check-in took about 20 minutes, so I had time to observe interactions before mine. The two German passengers behind me were getting impatient with how slowly things were moving, and the fact that only three counters were open to those of us in coach while there were two for first and business classes. I noticed a dearth of smiles from the check-in staff as they processed passengers. Just neutrality to the max. When it was my turn at the counter, the agent affected a bored look but somehow managed to make me feel rushed at the same time. I asked to change my window seat to an aisle and she said there weren't any but that I could try later at the gate. She answered my questions about snacks and services and sent me on my way to the gate with a robotic "Have a nice flight." I know airline staff do this day in and day out. But a touch of humanity would have been nice.

3. Friendliness of the gate agent when I request a seat change prior to departure.
3/5: No agents were at my gate an hour before departure so I attempted to ask at another gate if my window seat could be changed to an aisle, but was told I'd have to do it at my own gate. When an agent arrived at my gate, she looked busy, although nobody was in line. I asked if I could change my seat and she looked up, took the ticket from my hand, typed into the computer, ripped up my old ticket and handed me my new aisle seat, saying, "Here you go." I asked if there were snacks on board and she said they'd be for sale. I asked if water was free, she said "Yes." When I asked if my frequent flier number was on the ticket, she said "Yes" without glancing at it. All business and flavor-free. No time wasted on pleasantries, yet no real rush either.

4. Friendliness of flight attendants to my requests for a blanket, an extra beverage and anything else I might need during the flight.
5/5: Upon entering the plane, I noticed the flight attendant was busy speaking on the PA system, telling passengers to keep the aisles free, etc. He did not greet me, but that was okay because I could see he was busy, being very friendly despite all the passengers ambling along and clogging the aisles contrary to his pleas. A flight attendant was seated next to me in the jumpseat (my seat was actually the middle, but was considered an aisle since she was next to me). Shortly after takeoff, while the FA was still sitting there, I asked if she would mind getting me some water as I had to take a pill. She said no problem and retrieved the water with a smile as soon as she was able to get up. There was someone in the window seat next to me, and I was feeling quite cramped, so I moved to the jumpseat to spread out (it was pretty much like a regular seat, right next to my own in the row). When the flight attendant came through for the beverage service, I asked her if it was okay that I was seated there, and she said: "It's nice of you to ask." (I guess they appreciate friendliness, too!) She said that since we bonded earlier (over my water request), I could stay there. I enjoyed and appreciated the extra elbow-room.

Later, when I spilled tomato juice on my jeans, another FA brought me a paper towel with club soda and made light of the embarrassing accident, saying there were lots of tomato juice spills that day. I requested another drink, which she promptly delivered. Seated next to the same FA again on landing, I asked if she could recommend a hotel at my destination; she had a tip for that. She told me she had been with Delta 30 years, a long time to work for any employer, especially in customer service; it impressed me that she still maintained such a pleasant demeanor with passengers after all those years.

5. Friendliness of general interactions between airline personnel and other passengers that I observed during my travels.
4/5: I was careful to watch interactions between the FAs and other passengers. These all seemed very positive, too. The FAs had a way of doing their jobs without seeming stressed or impatient. One FA took a minute to chat in the aisle with a passenger and coo over her baby, even holding it at one point and oohing and ahhing about how cute it was; the passenger clearly enjoyed the attention. All the smiles from the flight attendants were such a contrast to the check-in process. It was a lot friendlier on board.

6. Friendliness of gate agent upon arrival when I ask for help finding a connecting flight or the baggage claim.
4/5: When I arrived at my destination, the departure gates were crowded with the usual harried passengers waiting to board their flights. Three FAs were gathered around the Delta desk when I stepped off the plane, and I interrupted their conversation to ask if they knew where I could buy a ticket for another flight. The one who answered me said she thought I could buy one right here, but she wasn't sure. After asking the agent behind the counter, she told me I would need to do that back at the check-in desk in the main terminal. (They don't handle money transactions at the gate.) Despite the fact that I had interrupted a conversation, the FAs were not abrupt and focused their attention on answering my question.

My journey isn't over yet. Follow me on Twitter as I go undercover to see how America's most popular airlines rate when it comes to service in the sky. Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Join the conversation by ending your tweet with #spyinthesky




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