Perry CantaruttiPerry Cantarutti is the vice president for sales and customer care at Delta Air Lines, the airline’s top customer-service position. I wanted to find out his tips for getting better customer service from an airline — particularly his. So I asked.

Delta used to have a sterling reputation for customer service among legacy carriers. In recent years, you’ve tried to recapture that with internal programs like “First Point of Contact”. How is the customer experience now, in your opinion?

Delta employees are extremely proud of the fact that for a generation we were known as the industry leader in customer service. That’s why our focus today is on delivering a high level of service for customers, but one that is adapted to 21st century expectations.

Deregulation and technology completely changed our industry. Fares are at all-time lows, fuller planes have been required to achieve profitability and customers expect speed and quality that far exceeds what the industry delivered in its early years.

Some of the recent changes we’ve made at Delta to address our current reality have included reintroducing “First Point of Contact” service recovery to allow our flight crews, airport staff and reservations agents to compensate passengers on the spot. We have also reintroduced “Red Coats” to provide assistance in our airports and have added self-service automation to our Web site and airports to eliminate lines and waits during delays.

What areas of customer service are you happy with? And which areas are you working on?

Since joining Delta from Northwest almost a year ago, I have come to appreciate the passion Delta people share with their Northwest counterparts in providing our customers with the highest level of service possible. So the will is there and that is always the hardest part in creating a successful customer service program.

Our challenge now is to ensure that our employees have the tools and programs in place to live up to their potential and provide a consistent experience for our customers. Technology is helping in this area and we are continuing to identify solutions that can advance these efforts and further support our employees’ efforts.

Speaking of technology, what’s the best way of contacting Delta when you have a problem with a flight?

It depends on where the customer is during the travel experience. Prior to travel, you should contact our reservations line at 800-221-1212 and ask for a customer service representative. If the customer is at the airport, they should seek assistance from the nearest customer service agent. If travel has been completed, contact customer care via delta.com by selecting “contact us”.

Can you offer any tips for getting a speedy resolution to a customer service problem, in the unlikely event that one occurs with Delta?

The best thing a passenger can do is to have all of their information on hand when they contact us. This includes date of travel, SkyMiles membership information, confirmation and ticket numbers, passengers’ full names and flight schedule.

Summarizing concerns in a clear and concise manner will allow our employees to effectively and efficiently handle concerns. We train our agents to work with customers dealing with extenuating circumstances, as well as those that haven’t received the level of customer service we are committed to providing. Each situation is unique and we ask our customer service agents to treat it as such.

There’s been a lot of recent discussion among airline passengers about H1N1 and change fees. It’s my understanding that Delta has taken a flexible attitude toward changes, even on nonrefundable tickets. Can you describe your current policy?

We do work to offer some flexibility. In situations where a passenger is unable to travel because of an illness, a doctor’s note may be required to waive change fees for non-refundable tickets.

I get an average of two or three requests a day from Delta passengers, asking me to intervene with the airline to bend a rule for refunds or changes. Can you help my readers understand why airlines like Delta have rules regarding ticket changes and refunds?

When purchasing a ticket, similar to other airlines, a passenger enters into an agreement with us to provide them with travel services. We refer to this as the contract of carriage and make it available at delta.com for review by our passengers. The contract of carriage establishes guidelines to ensure that we live up to our end of the contract and helps to establish the expectations the passenger should have in terms of our service.

These rules are important because the product we sell is a perishable one, meaning that once a flight has taken off we can no longer sell those specific seats to that destination. As a result, for each flight we offer variety of fare classes that provide a mix of cost and level of flexibility for changes and refunds.

The various types of fare classes allow passengers to determine what kind of flexibility they require for their travel at what price. The amount of risk the passenger is comfortable with in the unfortunate event that their plans change needs to be considered when they purchase various fare types.

How has the merger with Northwest Airlines affected service?

The merger with Northwest has made Delta a stronger carrier in a number of areas, but particularly in some of our customer facing functions. Combined we have created a best-in-class frequent flyer program and leveraged many customer related benefits. These benefits include information technology applications to further improve Delta’s customer experience from the time they check-in until they arrive at their final destination.

Some examples include enhanced meal services, check-in technology improvements, online itinerary change options during inclement weather and the introduction of Delta signature Red Coats at former Northwest hubs.

What can air travelers do to get the best possible customer experience from an airline like Delta?

As the head of Delta’s customer service efforts, I’m sure you can imagine I get asked this quite often. I always tell customers that the best thing they can do is report an issue as soon as possible. Track down one of our agents and explain your situation at the airport. Our newly introduced Red Coats are also a great resource for customer service related issues and can be easily identified by their signature Red Coat.

For baggage issues, although occurrences of delayed and damaged baggage are extremely rare, I encourage passengers to report such occurrences at the airport if possible and to do so within 24 hours. This gives us the best chance of returning their luggage. Otherwise, we do offer the option of the customer filing a claim using a form that is available online at delta.com.

Here’s a question I try to ask of all airlines: Is it possible to run a profitable airline and have happy customers? Or does an airline have to choose one over the other?

The answer is that we don’t have to choose to be profitable versus having happy customers at Delta we know we can do both.

First, we are uniquely positioned as a result of our merger with Northwest and have the benefit of looking at two network carriers and adopting policies and procedures from each to create an award-winning customer service program.

Over the last year or so, even in a weakened economy Delta has continued to reinvest in our customers in both technology upgrades making the check-in process easier, as well as our onboard products making the in-flight experience more comfortable. Along with this, we are working to identify ways to streamline the process for the occasions when our operations are disrupted and passengers are inconvenienced to get them reaccomodated and on their way to their final destinations as soon as possible.

I get a lot of complaints about fees, from luggage fees to change fees. Is there any scenario under which you see Delta eliminating a la carte fees and charging a price for the entire air travel experience? Or are ancillary revenues too important now to the overall revenue picture?

The entire industry has moved towards these “a la carte fees” and Delta will continue to remain competitive with other carriers. In fact, our most loyal customers don’t incur these fees as they typically apply to customers that choose to fly Delta on a less consistent basis.

Ancillary revenues have been critical in the current economic environment. At Delta, fees are a source; however, we also rely on revenue from both our cargo and maintenance, repair and overhaul operations.