The Delta Airlines Leadership Debacle

By | August 4, 2020

[August 4, 2020]  Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese general and philosopher, once said, “If words of command are not clear and distinct if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame.”  Some people say that a leader should only give his “intent” and allow those who follow the latitude to make proper decisions.  That, however, doesn’t always work out so well.  Case in point is when Delta Airlines workers decided to charge U.S. Army troops, returning from war, extra for their military baggage.

Cartoonist Michael P. Ramirez drew a forceful picture that mocks the policies of Delta Airlines.  The airline charged troops extra for their luggage when returning from a combat tour.  This came to light after members of the U.S. Army Detachment 62 returned in June 2011 from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan and were forced to pay $200 apiece out of their own pockets for additional baggage fees.1

Two months earlier, to this incident, I received my redeployment orders to return to the United States from Iraq.  On April 11th, I was given my departure outbrief from the senior theater Engineer in Iraq, a Brigadier General.  He posed five questions for me.  His ideas involved how to be a better Army Engineer, and to do that, one needed to understand the senior commander better.  Interestingly, this applies to not just Delta Airlines but to all organizations.

  1. What is our mission?
  2. Who are our customers?
  3. What does the customer value?
  4. What are our results?
  5. What is our plan?

“Customer” for us is the senior commander.  What this General was telling me, was the importance of having clear and distinct orders.  Otherwise, you will fail as a senior officer in the Army or any endeavor.

I arrived in the States at the end of April, paid my extra baggage fee on Delta Airlines, thought nothing of it, and the Army reimbursed me in full.  But only after their policies went public did the leadership of Delta make changes.  They had failed in their most basic task to make their policies clear.  To the credit of Delta Airlines, they immediately changed their policy and would not, forthwith, charge extra baggage fees to troops traveling under military orders.  Good move, Delta Airlines.


Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

24 thoughts on “The Delta Airlines Leadership Debacle

  1. Eric Coda

    Great article, Gen. Satterfield. Yes, we can learn from the past. For those who make the mistake and for those of us who only read about it, we are better to know that leaders don’t have to make mistakes to create problems. Sometimes, we just have to be unclear and those working for us will make the mistakes.

  2. Bob Eaves

    I think it is stupid and irresponsible to bring up something 10 years later.
    Grow a set ❗️

    1. Stacey Borden

      Hi Bob, I believe the point being made here is that we can learn a lot from mistakes of the past. In this case, the point was that when leaders do not make themselves clear, problems can occur. In the case of Delta Airlines, it was a small mistake that got blown up a lot and gave them a blackeye. There is A LOT TO LEARN from history. Read more of this blog and you will see a bunch of historical lessons that should not be forgotten.

  3. Ronny Fisher

    I remember this incident. I was traveling at that time from my home to Atlanta GA where the problem occurred. The good thing is that Delta immediately fixed the problem. Your point is still correct, leaders must issue clear orders, else you see results like this.

  4. Nick Lighthouse

    I’m always amazed at what our troops have to go thru. Now they even have to put up with crazy airline policies. But this is nothing compared to what happened to our Vietnam Vets who were spit on and called “baby killers.” I hope someday that those who treated them badly will have their names and faces made public so that they can get their much-deserved ridicule. Of course, they will never admit it and some of them are politicians.

    1. Tony B. Custer

      Sad but true. Their nature of hating America will never be revealed. They can take solace in that fact.

  5. Valkerie

    Loving your blog these days, General Satterfield. Thanks.

  6. Billy Kenningston

    The lesson should be clear. Make sure your policies are clear and how they should be applied. It was clear to me that it was Delta’s policy to charge anyone not in First or Business class with a $200 fee for their fourth bag. But, after being chided for it, they immediately changed their tune.

    1. Fred Weber

      Yes, but they had to be publically chided for it. It was not on their own.

      1. Darryl Sitterly

        I agree, the lesson is clear. But are other airlines following their lead?

  7. Tracey Brockman

    One of the soldiers shot a video laying out the case for why they were upset at having to pay to check a fourth bag. In the video they posted on YouTube, the soldiers say they are authorized to check as many as four bags on their return trip from Afghanistan. The video went viral, and soon the public was echoing their disgruntled sentiment. Veterans groups chided Delta.

    1. Harry B. Donner

      Good to get your hand slapped on occasion.

    2. Jerome Smith

      VFW spokesman Joe Davis, for example, issued a statement saying: “A $200 bill for extra baggage by a government-contracted airline is the worst welcome home any soldier could receive. I will note, however, that Delta was following the terms of its contract with the US Government. But Delta quickly amended their own policy. This was quick acting and an example of a company that does good. They didn’t do it because it became public but because it was the right thing to do.

      1. Mr. T.J. Asper

        Right Jerome, and a great article reminding us of the fact that even the smartest senior leaders can make horrendous mistakes. But Delta Airlines’ leadership fixed the problem straight away.

  8. Gil Johnson

    To-the-point blog posting. The issue here for us all is that the clarity of orders/directives/laws/guidance – all should be precisely worded. Else, they will be misinterpreted or distorted either purposefully or not.

    1. Kenny Foster

      For clarification, Delta Airlines spokesperson said that it was common policy to charge for that extra bag, although the company did change its guidelines. At the time the complaint was posted by the two soldiers, service members were allowed to check three bags, and unless they flew first or business class, they were charged $200 for each additional piece of luggage.

      1. Janna Faulkner

        They still screwed up. A tad of commonsense would have prevented this. My question, was the Delta Airlines person being anti-American soldier? Or were they just a common bureaucrat flexing their muscles?

    2. Yusaf from Texas

      Regardless of the soldiers’ encounter with Delta, they are happy to be home.

    3. Len Jakosky

      Gen. Satterfield was also charged so it looks like the application of the policy was across the board and not just from a select few Delta workers.

    4. Xerxes I

      Certainly gave Delta Airlines a black eye! They deserved it.

  9. Watson Bell

    Gen. Satterfield, I know from a previous post “Core Values: Delta Airlines” that you actually have a favorable opinion of them. Their core values are straight forward, clear, public, and IMO on target. They admitted what they did (screwed up) and fixed it right away. Thinks for reminding us that senior leaders can still make mistakes but they should immediately rectify the problem.

    1. JT Patterson

      Good point. Delta Airlines – when compared to other US carriers – is actually one of the better airlines. When you, however, compare them to non-US carriers, they don’t rate in the top 10. No US airline rates high. That says something about customer service.

    2. Wendy Holmes

      Thanks for the reference to Core Values. Gen. Satterfield has been excellent about pointing out their importance. Glad to hear that Delta fixed their problematic policy.

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