Delta’s Ausband: When it comes to customer service, “we want to be even better”

Allison Ausband/Delta Air Lines

Allison Ausband is Delta Air Lines’ vice president for reservation sales and customer care. I met with her last week to discuss the progress since our last interview in 2010.

It’s nice to see you again. And you’re still here. Before you came along, this position was like watching a game of musical chairs. (Here’s my 2009 interview with Ausband’s predecessor.)

Thank you. I liken it to solving world peace on some days. I try to fix everything. But I’ve never been more excited about our momentum.

Let me start by asking you about some of the numbers reported to the Department of Transportation, like customer complaints. They’re much improved. What happened?

We were sitting on the bottom when I saw you two years ago. We were in ninth place. We have been on a mission with regard to our DOT complaints. We’ve put into place over 250 different service initiatives.

Like what?

I’ll give you a few examples. Flight problems — that’s our largest complaint category. We’re now giving more timely communication to our customers and being more transparent. One initiative that we’ve just started is that our captains go out and make announcements when there’s a lengthy delay.

Another issue was economy comfort seating on the 757. We had two seats that were not meeting our customer’s expectations, and we decided to take them out of inventory.

We track our customers, and when someone’s schedule has been changed three times or more, we will call them to find out if everything is OK.

Do your internal metrics reflect the reduction in DOT complaints?

From a reservations perspective, one number we had talked about the last time I saw you was average speed to answer. We know that’s a pain point. It’s decreased 17 percent over the last two years.

We don’t give people a busy signal when they call. We have introduced something we call virtual hold, and at the four-minute mark, we give you the option of calling you back. We’ve saved our customers over 123 years of hold time with virtual hold.

We want to get our numbers even better. Next year, in the second quarter, we’re launching a natural-language IVR [Interactive Voice Response] system. You can tell it what you want and it’ll route you to the right place.

Last time I saw you, we had some new government regulations on the horizon. They’re now in place. Which of the new rules have benefited your customers the most?

The one on baggage fees, definitely. We were already in line with the rules when they came out, so we were in a great place.

You know baggage fees are so complex. Our network is huge, and we have partners. We now have better technology to calculate the baggage fees and there’s transparency on the receipt. In the first quarter of next year, you’ll see full disclosure of those fees.

You recently changed your baggage interlining policy, so luggage isn’t automatically transferred when a customer is traveling on another airline using two tickets. Have you had any complaints about that?

No, that issue hasn’t popped up.

What about ancillary fees? Those are a source of frustration for a lot of airline passengers.

On, we’re in a great place, when it comes to ancillary fees. The information is there, it’s transparent. We have to partner with the DOT, to make sure it’s consistent. We want to work in partnership to make our fares fully transparent.

What do your passengers want to see?

I think what they see on their printed itinerary today is tremendous progress. It’s full disclosure. They get a breakdown. In the past, ancillary fees were new to us, and customers didn’t have that. We’re doing a much better job today.

We just need to continue to get better.

In the second part of our interview, we’ll discover what happened to First Point of Contact and what Delta’s customer care will do in two years. Tune in for part two tomorrow.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • sirwired

    “You know baggage fees are so complex. Our network is huge, and we have
    partners. We now have better technology to calculate the baggage fees
    and there’s transparency on the receipt. In the first quarter of next
    year, you’ll see full disclosure of those fees.”

    Are you seriously saying that until now, you didn’t have the least clue how to properly calculate the fees? And you won’t, until now, actually be disclosing them to customers as part of the booking process? Perhaps this should have been done BEFORE the fees were instituted, not a couple of years AFTER?

    What other industry could possibly get away with a stupid stunt like this?

    Will Delta be doing anything to reimburse all those passengers that ended up paying fees they shouldn’t have, especially on international code-shared flights?

    No, of course they won’t.

  • John

    What a lame answer with regard to not transferring luggage through to other airlines on separate tickets – “No, that issue hasn’t popped up.” Of course not – their rule doesn’t go into effect until January. I am also a little disappointed in you Chris, for not asking a follow up question about that. This will be huge – those who already bought tickets who now don’t have enough time to claim bags, recheck them and go through security. Will Delta change their flights for free? I doubt it.

  • cahdot

    what about the interlining policy when luggage is not automatically transferred when a customer is on another airline SOUNDS LIKE TROUBLE TO ME we did delta jax to atl then british airways(their business class was cheaper and very nice)and checked one small bad of liquids it did not make the transfer even tho we were assured via delta it would had to hunt for it for 2 days….

  • cahdot

    a very big problem as delta does not fly everywhere—try going to aspen on them… so u must use ?&^%$United –not my fav)not nice try going to claim and re-check luggage for transfer in denver then go back thru tsa what a #$%% ZOO

  • stephen_nyc

    1. why does the pop-up keep happening asking me to sign up for the newsletter? I already get it. Anyway, please stop doing the pop-up. TIA.
    2. IVR – yeah, that’s not going to work well. At every company I’ve had to use it, I keep hitting ‘0’ or ‘#’ to get somebody human. It seems that their idea of what word to reach a human is never the same as mine. And speakerphones cause them all sorts of trouble.
    3. My guess is that the texas-two-step for getting luggage when flying two airlines is also going to be a massive cluster*.
    4. How are baggage fees complex? I give you a bag, you put it in the cargo hold after weighing it. If it’s over x pounds, you tell me to pay you a million bucks more and away we go. Seems simple to me. But then, I’m not a baggage fee expert.
    5. Gee, they were 9th last year. They pretty much had only one direction to go and that was up.

    I am so glad I don’t fly much these days.