Aug. 17, 2003: Delta Employees: Management’s Perks Just Don’t Fly

Other than the time when I angered most of the Arab world by questioning their manhood, I got more response from my column about Delta Air Lines hiring an “image expert” than from any other piece I have ever written. Most of the mail came from Delta employees — active and retired — who are angry, disappointed, disillusioned and just plain dumbfounded with their management. Almost to a person, they asked not to be identified because they fear reprisals from their out-to-lunch executives.

As you may recall, I had wondered out loud why Delta needed to spend their scarce resources on image experts. The problem with Delta’s image seemed pretty obvious to me. The airline’s executives decided that hemorrhaging $1.4 billion in red ink last year entitled them to bonuses and pension protections to the tune of about $65 million. Their excuse was that the payouts were necessary to “keep the management team together.” Since the column, three of the suits have already left with their money. So much for the team.

A flight attendant told me that she and her fellow workers were so incensed at their management’s chutzpah that their supervisor grew concerned and bought them a popcorn machine. (I’m not making this up.) Their bosses are making millions and the local folks get all the free popcorn they can eat.

Another told of taking a voluntary leave of absence at the company’s request. This, she said, was her way of helping a company that had been so good to her over the years. She was then called back to work, and six days later she was told that her job had been eliminated and so had she.

One employee summed up the feelings of many of the respondents. She said employees are “disgusted and embarrassed by management” and accused them of trying to sneak their bonuses and pension protections through without any public knowledge.

One pilot said he tried to convey to Delta president Fred Reid that employees are the company’s greatest assets, and until the executives get them back on the team, “we will continue to slide downhill. For the first time, I am starting to worry about the future of Delta Air Lines.” Mr. Reid’s response, the pilot says, was to defend his salary.

A large number of employees invoked the name of Dave Garrett, former CEO of Delta. Several reminded me that during Garrett’s tenure as Delta chief, employees chipped in and bought the company a $30 million airplane. I doubt employees would buy current CEO Leo Mullin anything but a farewell lunch.

A Delta captain told me of trying to get home on a pass at the same time as Garrett and his wife. When the CEO found out that there was not room on the flight for all of them, he gave the pilot his seat and he and his wife took a later flight. Listening to the employees, you get the feeling that Garrett would not have approved of his executives getting bankruptcy protection and leaving the rank-and-file swinging in the breeze.

Now we hear that Delta management has backtracked on their pension and bonus plans. In a “We’re all in this thing together” letter to employees that had to be as insulting as was the original effort to quietly line their nests, Mullin says, “The new moves are part of an effort to eliminate, as much as possible, any sense of ‘we versus they’ on compensation policy.” Hogwash. Read the fine print. Delta isn’t rescinding the special pension program. The company just isn’t going to put in the final $20 million. The 35 executives still have 80 percent of their retirement in a tax-free trust that cannot be touched in the event of a bankruptcy.

To sum up, Delta employees are mad as hell and I don’t blame them. I would suggest to the dunderheads on Delta’s board of directors that they look out for their employees for a change. Tell the current management bunch to go open a bait shop in Villa Rica. Bring in Dave Garrett and his management team to resuscitate Delta Air Lines and its employees. Do that and Delta won’t need image experts. Simple isn’t it?