Atlanta-based Delta navigates adversity

One recent Friday afternoon at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport, Delta skycaps were working furiously to process the luggage of a long line of anxious passengers. Nearby, the skycaps at several other airlines were trying their best to look busy. It was business as usual at Delta Air Lines - despite a series of recent safety problems. Industry experts and company spokesmen agree the incidents are mostly coincidence. But all eyes are on Delta to see what happens next.

``If the incidents were to continue,'' says Lee Howard, an industry consultant at Airline Economics Inc. in Washington, D.C., ``it's bound to have an impact'' on the company. But such an impact would not occur overnight.

One of the key issues at this point is the outcome of a federal investigation into a possible near-miss over the Atlantic on July 8. Someone in the Delta cockpit supposedly suggested that the incident not be reported. The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating.

``If the FAA determines that the Delta crew had in fact tried to cover up the incident,'' says David Stamey, an industry consultant in Atlanta, ``that could seriously damage Delta's hard-earned reputation for safety.'' The public, Mr. Stamey says, might well begin wondering what else Delta has covered up.

Meanwhile, the FAA has sent a team of seven investigators to Delta's Atlanta headquarters to examine the airline's pilot-training and maintenance programs. The inquiry should take three to six weeks.

``Delta has a cadre of very loyal customers,'' Mr. Howard says. ``And they have a group of tightknit, loyal employees.'' The profitable airline has also had one of the best safety records in the industry.

For now, Delta has only met with embarrassment among employees and executives. In a city where Delta rules the skies, the company's slogan, ``Delta gets you there,'' has suffered, too. The new slogan, some wags suggest, should be ``Delta glides you there,'' or ``Delta gets you somewhere.'' Delta officials have to be hoping that the jokes end here.

Morale among employees is said to be good. But perhaps more important for the company is passenger desire to continue flying with the ``Delta family.''

``We've noticed no change'' in the number of passengers flying Delta, says company spokesman Jim Ewing. He says recent incidents have ``confounded'' the carrier.

Some analysts say Delta's recent acquisition of Western Airlines may have contributed to the carrier's problems, especially if Delta is having trouble bringing Western into the family fold.

``It's somewhat of a clash of cultures,'' one industry observer says. Delta is nonunion and Western had been a union company until the merger last April. Other specialists point to the fact that Delta pilots are now flying new Western routes and vice versa.

``I have heard speculation about the possibility,'' says Howard, ``but it's really hard to say'' what impact the merger could possibly have on the mishaps.

``I think it's an open-ended question,'' says consultant Stamey. ``There's no way of knowing.''

At Delta, Mr. Ewing says, ``the merger is going great. Our philosophies are the same.''

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