Delta brings back Red Coats to help with customer service

NEW YORK -- At a time when air travel has become an increasingly do-it-yourself affair, with passengers making their own reservations, checking themselves in and even toting their own food, Delta dal is bringing back a touch of the past: its once ubiquitous Red Coats.

The scarlet-jacketed agents returned to New York's JFK airport last summer and made their debut this month at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson. By summer's end, 600 agents will be walking the concourses and gate areas of 14 airports, including LAX, Orlando and Washington's Reagan National.

The return of the elite agents is perhaps the most visible sign of an airline ramping up personal customer service rather than reducing it at a time when self check-in is the norm and passengers often have to pay extra to have an actual person book their flights.

American Airlines opened a new customer-service center at Boston's Logan Airport two years ago, and Delta stopped connecting callers to representatives in India during the first quarter of this year, switching most customer conversations to Delta employees in the U.S. But for the most part, airlines are headed in the opposite direction.

Continental will cut roughly 500 positions in its reservations department, and shutter its reservations center in Tampa, as of July 19 in response to more people booking their own flights online. And with several airlines testing new technology, passengers who already check in using kiosks and computers may soon be able to use a bar code transmitted to their mobile devices as a boarding pass.

High rate of complaints

Delta will continue to tap into the new, but it says the Red Coats, first introduced in the 1960s but eliminated in 2005 because of budget cuts, are a nod to the need to offer a more personal touch.

"We, along with most of the industry, have been driving technology, and we still continue to do that," says Gil West, Delta's senior vice president, airport customer service. Yet, he says, "We realize we've got to invest in the human element as well. ... One of our key objectives is to continue to improve our customer service. The bringing back of the Red Coats for Delta is very symbolic of that."

Considered a kind of super-agent who can handle virtually any task, the Red Coats' primary mission is to fix problems.

They are being equipped with handheld units, similar to those used by rental car representatives, to help them more efficiently assist passengers, directing those who've missed a connection to their new flight, for example, securing boarding passes or even providing food vouchers if there is a need.

"Any problem or situation that comes up, they're prepared to resolve it quickly," West says. Situations that would have been more difficult to fix in years past, "Now, through the use of technology and Red Coats, we're able to mitigate the impact to our customers."

Of the largest U.S. airlines, Delta had the worst consumer complaint record in the first quarter of this year, with 1.97 complaints per 100,000 people boarding a plane, according to the Transportation Department.

But the airline industry as a whole tends to fare poorly in customer satisfaction surveys, and Delta's visible attempt to improve service by bringing back the Red Coat agents could enhance its image and bottom line, marketing experts say.

"Anything they can do to differentiate themselves will make the brand more salient and consumers more aware," says Lopo Rego, a marketing professor at the University of Iowa who specializes in the study of strategic marketing and customer satisfaction. "It's saying, 'We're different, and on top of that, we actually care for you because we have these agents that will solve anything on the spot.' "

'A nice surprise'

Some fliers who've encountered the Delta Red Coats at JFK say they were pleased to see a more personal touch. Lisa Price, a nurse who crisscrosses the country every week to train her peers, had a Red Coat come to her aid last month when her flight to Atlanta was canceled. Price, 45, was initially rebooked on a flight set to leave the next evening. But the Red Coat agent got Price a first-class seat on a flight to Atlanta that same night and then a flight from there to Nashville first thing in the morning.

"It was a great experience," says Price, who lives in Franklin, Tenn. "Whenever there's a cancellation for a flight like that, when you try to call you're on hold forever, you stand in the line forever ... so it was nice."

Jay Hibbard of Portland, Maine, says the Red Coats stand out in comparison with other airport workers.

"It has been a little refreshing to have even a modicum of customer service appear," says Hibbard, who travels frequently doing government relations work for a trade association. "So many of the employees appear to be doing all they can to just avoid contact. It's ... 'Go look at the screens, follow the signs.' But when it comes right down to it, they are not all that interested in being helpful."

So, he says, "The concept of having someone there to answer a question or provide directions is a nice surprise."