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Though it was a year ago this weekend, I remember the flight like it was yesterday. I was making my way back from Los Angeles to London with a transcontinental flight in Delta One, feeding to an international flight from Boston to London. The crew couldn’t have been lovelier, but the reason that flight was memorable had nothing to do with me.

But before we get into that anecdote, let’s look at a few things Delta has done in the last year..

Now, back to the story. After exchanging pleasantries, the purser was proud to let me know she’d been flying with the airline for over 20 years, and never had she been more in love with her job than the present. A younger colleague of hers, relatively new, was learning on the job, in an absolute masterclass.

There was a two letter reason why: Ed.

As someone used to airplane galleys being places filled with disdain for passengers, management, and underpay, I couldn’t believe how upbeat and proud this crew was of their airline. I’d never heard of an airline CEO that was actually loved by their employees, but I practically had to ask for the convo to be cut short, with all the Ed Bastian love.

There was a simple reason for that: Delta was making record profits to the tune of billions, and Ed Bastian chose to create a revenue share agreement with employees. When times were booming, everyone got to get in on the action, not just Wall Street and c-suite. Yeah, to the surprise of no one, telling employees they’re valuable just isn’t quite as effective as giving them cold hard cash when they create a great product.

Before I boarded my next flight, I enjoyed using my Skymiles to “upgrade” to a glass of outstanding California Cabernet, rather than the “free” house stuff. For someone with a few miles to burn, and an affinity for truly great wine – a glass of Silver Oak hit the spot. And for about 2,000 Skymiles, I was happy to imbibe.

delta one suitesOn the next flight, I found that nothing had changed. This crew was upbeat, positive, proud of the soft touches like great new wine lists and exciting new seats rolling out to the best new planes in the sky. It was entirely evident that there was a culture of positivity at this airline, and it didn’t seem to be fading anytime soon.

Delta was going big in business class with fully enclosed suites, while offering passenger friendly touches in economy. At the same time, they launched a competitive premium economy. The Big 3 have always been interested in cornering corporate travel coin, but Delta just seems to be doing more to deliver a palatable travel experience for all.

After a year of bouncing around the “Big 3” US Airlines, Delta is the one that gives me hope and optimism that the “big race to the bottom” in the US airline industry might be improperly titled. There just might be an airline using their record revenue streams to create things passengers want. For that matter, Delta was the only of the “big three” to still allow full sized carry on bags on basic economy tickets.

What makes this all so impressive is countering it with a typical experience on America, or United. My last business class experience on American couldn’t have been more disappointing. Culturally, they’re miles behind. Though there are always wonderful people in any operation, you can’t fake buzz, and neither airline is enjoying as much brand enthusiasm.

In examining this cultural shift, one can’t help but think that their joint venture partner across the pond may be playing a big part here. Despite being a boutique, underdog of an airline, Virgin Atlantic has always been one of the most beloved brands in the sky, known for the “surprise and delight” factor. Bellini’s and printed menus certainly sound like a Virgin touch.

Hey, if it makes flying better, who cares.

Airlines will never be the friendly neighbours we collectively wish for them to be. In most cases, they’re publicly traded companies, dutifully bound to maximise every revenue opportunity and fill every inch of every aircraft as efficiently as possible. But seeing the way Delta is moving, I can’t help but be optimistic that in the “monkey see, monkey do” culture of airline copycatting, Delta may be carving their own lane.

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