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Delta Airlines Woos Ultra Frequent Fliers


Delta is trying new ways to cater to the business travelers who make up the heart of the airline business.

Susanna Capelouto reports from Atlanta.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO, BYLINE: It's a mess at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Some flights are delayed, passengers are anxious. But Delta concierge Vangie Potter is in her element.

VANGIE POTTER: We're trying to track down Mr. Greenberg. He's going to LaGuardia. He has about 15 minutes to make it, two concourses over.

CAPELOUTO: Fifteen minutes to go, two concourses in the world's busiest airport. But right now, she's not in the terminal. She's driving a Porsche, darting between planes, on the busy tarmac.

POTTER: If you want to boost the turbo on it, you can do that. I haven't used those features yet. I try to adhere to the speed limit out here. We do anywhere from 25 to 30 miles an hour.


CAPELOUTO: Even though she's not allowed to drive fast, you can still hear the powerful Porsche Cayenne's engine, revving, over the jet noise. On days when connections are tight, Delta has an elaborate system to keep track of its first class and Diamond Medallion frequent fliers. Delta's Mike Henny says only high-end travelers who are in jeopardy of missing their flights might get a surprise ride in the luxury vehicles.

MIKE HENNY: Obviously, we've only got so many vehicles and we've only got so many drivers so, you know, we can't pick up everyone, and that's another part of the reason why we don't let people book in advance.

CAPELOUTO: Porsche has donated eight of these $50,000 cars to Delta. Porsche's Trevor Bleedorn says it's free marketing that's paying off.

TREVOR BLEEDORN: What we're getting is roughly just over 80 people a day, Delta's high value customers, you know, usually business people, successful people traveling around normally for work, but sometimes on personal travel. They're collecting them for us and we're getting them to touch and experience our product directly.

CAPELOUTO: Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia says airlines need more of these frills to keep their wealthy customers happy. That's especially true these days - as planes are almost always sold out - and little about the travel experience is pleasurable.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: It's amazing we haven't seen a certain bolshevism in the air. I mean, you know, you look at the emphasis put on the front of the cabin compared to the back.

CAPELOUTO: The front of the plane, he says, is where the action is, because that's where airlines make the bulk of their money. Delta's Diamond Medallions fly at least 125,000 miles a year.

ABOULAFIA: Most carriers have realized they need lie flat seats and good in-flight entertainment, to successfully compete for the high-end, high profit traffic, but once they've done that how do they distinguish themselves? How do they avoid offering a commodity product? And that's where services like this come in.

CAPELOUTO: It's an unexpected service passenger Ron Greenberg gets today. As he rushes off the plane, he spots Delta's Vangie Potter displaying his name.

POTTER: I'm Vangie, Mr. Greenberg, with Delta Elite Services.

RON GREENBERG: How are you?

POTTER: I'm concerned to try to get you to your plane.

GREENBERG: Great. Thank you.

CAPELOUTO: He doesn't have much time to catch his New York plane. They scramble down the jet way, onto the tarmac and into the car.

GREENBERG: This is awesome. I was sitting there stressing on the flight wondering, all right, I'm going to miss this flight because of weather.

CAPELOUTO: He makes his connecting flight just as the door closes.


CAPELOUTO: This month, Delta is expanding its Porsche rides program to New York, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susanna Capelouto