Peeking Behind the Curtain at Delta Air Lines

Delta’s A350 in Atlanta just after landing from Seoul

Flying today is certainly romantic. At least to me. The idea that we can walk through a door, sit down for a few hours, and walk out of the same door into someplace completely different is amazing. But, what’s even more amazing is the fact that so many people – most of whom we never see – are involved in keeping us climbing.

Recently, I had the opportunity to peek behind the curtain at Delta Air Lines. I’m a member of a group of Delta Diamond Medallion Flyers (customers who fly more than 125,000 miles or 140 segments in one year) on Facebook. Every year, the group holds an auction for amazing experiences, the proceeds of which are contributed to the American Cancer Society. Last year, I had the opportunity to serve as a Gate Agent.

This year, I won a tour of Delta’s Operations Control Center (OCC). A friend of mine won a tour of Delta’s Maintenance Facility in Atlanta (TechOps). We planned our visits on the same day.

Delta’s Operations Control Center

As of 8:00 a.m., Delta Air Lines was scheduled to carry 636,807 passengers on Friday, August 17, 2018, the day of our tour. 130,015 of those customers would travel through Atlanta. With 876 airplanes (and another 315 on order), Delta is a massive operation. The OCC is critical to its success.

I’ve never seen so many computer monitors!

The tour of OCC was like entering the airline’s brain. Despite the huge numbers of machines and people, it’s virtually silent. Which is made even more surprising by what was going on outside on the day we visited. The Northeast Corridor of the United States (one of the most heavily traveled airways on the planet) was being rocked by summer thunderstorms, which sent ripples throughout the network.

But, the folks inside the OCC manage it in stride. They’re never quite sure what will hit them from one day to the next, but thanks to a dedicated team of meteorologists (Delta’s team is the largest of any US airline), they have a slightly better clue.

The OCC Conference Room is ready for action

We were invited to join the morning briefing in which representatives from every major corner of the airline (from aircraft dispatchers to flight crew to social media) provide updates about their previous day’s performance and any potential areas of concern for the coming day.

I had the opportunity to interview Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, last week. I’ll post the interview to my YouTube channel next week.

Virtually every participant tied his or her update to the airline’s customers. Evidence that what Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, shared with me the day before was true:

“We obsess on our employees…so they can obsess on our customers.”

Delta is a customer-centered airline. As a Delta Diamond Medallion Flyer, I admit my experience with the airline is a bit different than most people’s, but I do have status with all three major US airlines and find  – in my experience – Delta is the most customer-focused.

Delta’s TechOps

Aside from safety, a huge part of a flyer’s expectation of an airline is on-time arrival. Much of the credit for Delta’s consistent wins in that area are due to the talented people at the OCC.

Every Delta flight is tracked by Dispatchers who operate out of the OCC. These individuals, along with the Pilots in Command, are responsible for decisions about flights. They’re in constant communication with the 20-40 flights they’re tracking during their shifts, staying up-to-speed on the status of those flights.

Safety First: Delta Pilots train in simulators very close to the OCC.

If something happens on a flight, say a medical emergency, the OCC immediately spins into action. Decisions are made about whether to divert or continue on. Flight attendants (and medical professionals if they’re onboard) are linked up with doctors on the ground who have expertise in delivering care at altitude (our bodies react differently to treatment above 10,000 feet). In short, an entire team of dedicated professionals are focused on making sure the best possible results are achieved.

Not everything the OCC addresses is so “life-and-death.” Recently, a flight attendant spilled coffee on a customer’s laptop computer during a flight from New York’s JFK International Airport to Charles de Gualle airport in Paris, France. The OCC was immediately notified by both the Flight Attendant (using one of their own airline-provided communication devices) and the Passenger (who shared the incident on social media). By the time the flight landed seven hours later, the ground crew in Paris had a brand new laptop waiting for the passenger.

This kind of reaction is precisely what airlines should strive for. One aspect of commercial aviation I’m incredibly excited about is the use of data to make the passenger experience more positive.

Engine maintenance is crucial to safe flying

But, it’s not just the OCC that keeps us in the air. We also had the chance to visit another group of critical professionals at work for Delta. The team over at TechOps are responsible for the maintenance of much of Delta’s fleet.

They maintain, repair, and rebuild some of the engines for Delta’s fleet of 876 airplanes. They also perform much of the required maintenance on aircraft bodies. Indeed, many other airlines (and the US Government) contract Delta to maintain their planes, too.

Up close and personal with an Airbus A330

Getting up close and personal with a modern airliner is always a special experience. But seeing one from a unique angle is even more amazing.

A Delta MD-88

When you get onto a commercial airplane, you can be confident it’s been well looked-after. The FAA requires aircraft to undergo regular checks. As the plane flies more, those checks become more substantial until it’s time for a “D Check,” which is the heaviest of all. It usually occurs every six to ten years (depending on how much the plane flies) and involves literally taking the entire airplane apart. TechOps passes those checks onto other providers. But, a lot of the rest of the maintenance takes place within their facility under the “Fly Delta Jets” sign at the Atlanta airport. You may have noticed it if you’ve flown through Atlanta?

Seeing the way in which Delta behaves “behind the scenes” was fascinating. Special thanks to everyone who made the experience possible!

Delta A330 Nosewheel

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