The Red Coats are coming. Delta's Red Coats, that is.
Delta Air Lines has already brought back its roaming über customer-service agents in two airports -- Atlanta and New York's Kennedy -- but is expanding them to several other hubs, including the Twin Cities, in July.
Even at a time when airlines are struggling, experts say it's a savvy move that could help return Delta to its one-time position of prominence in customer service.
"Delta was always known as the airline with the very good customer service. I think everyone has to admit that it has slipped over the last five to six years. They're trying to get back to that good old Delta feeling," said airline analyst Terry Trippler of Minneapolis.
The airline started the Red Coat program in the 1960s but eliminated it in a cost-cutting move just before Delta filed for bankruptcy in 2005. These "super" agents carry hand-held devices that can issue boarding tickets if a flight is canceled or vouchers for customers, providing a personal touch, said Gil West, Delta's senior vice president of airport customer service.
"The Red Coats can resolve virtually anything," he said.
The Red Coats are current Delta agents who are elevated to the position. About 66 of the 600 Red Coats across the country will be phased in at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport next month, he said. Red Coats receive additional pay.
In the annual Airline Quality Rating released this spring, Delta, which acquired Northwest in the fall but still operates it as a separate subsidiary, fell from 10th in 2007 to 12th last year. Northwest ranked fourth for the second year in a row.
Airlines are looking for ways to separate themselves from the pack, said Dean Headley, co-author of the report and an associate professor of marketing at Wichita State University.
"Any time you can make one thing stand out over another, it can be good or bad," he said. "In this case, you'd think it would be good."
For Delta, it's a return to a tradition that helped define the airline and its focus on customer service.
"Delta has a long history with the Red Coats, and we know it does have a very powerful effect on customer service," said West. "It's time to bring them back."
The Red Coats were "very well received" at Kennedy International Airport when Delta gave them a trial run that started last summer, he said.
West declined to say how much the program is costing Delta, which said this week that it will cut back even more flights this fall. Airlines are struggling from the swine-flu outbreak and the economic meltdown on top of a recent increase in fuel prices. Delta projects it will take a $125 million to $150 million revenue hit in the second quarter because of the impact on air travel from the swine flu virus.
Trippler said Delta's efforts to boost its customer service in the face of such bleak news still makes sense.
"When things get tough for the airlines and the pie gets smaller with fewer people traveling, you have to cut yourself a bigger piece of pie," he said. "And they want a bigger piece of that pie."
Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707