2016-03-23 / Front Page

Grimmett Of Delta Airlines Speaks At Queens College

By Thomas Cogan

Gail Grimmett of Delta Airlines has a reputation as a business dynamo, which she upheld well at a mid-March Queens College Business Forum breakfast.  She is Delta’s senior vice president in charge of development in New York, city and state.  At the breakfast in the QC student union building, she concentrated on the city and its Queens-based airports.  Since 2006, she said, her company has been conducting major overhauls, first at John F. Kennedy Airport and lately at La Guardia, to make up for decades of neglect.  She described several phases of that neglect, pointing out how it can occur when a company is narrowly concentrated on the business of flying and can’t find the time to repair deteriorating facilities and improve slack public relations.  She has had her part in the transformation and her description of the last few years found a receptive audience.  

She called the New York City area rich in depth and dollars, served by 70 airlines and therefore the most competitive place in the world.  And what, she asked, is better than competition?  But competition provides a warning that Delta and any other airline must heed, she said:  customer dissatisfaction with Delta could cause them to walk away from it, to one of those 69 others.

Delta expanded its business at John F. Kennedy Airport by 70 percent between 2006 and 2008, as a result of spending $1.4 billion in transformative repairs and rebuilding.  At the outset, she said, Delta had a good fleet of planes but its investment at the airport—branding, facilities, sales and community relations—was poor.  She said she got an appointment at the time with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and found during their conversation that he was hardly aware of Delta’s presence at JFK.  Her first instinct was annoyance he was oblivious of Delta, but finally she was ashamed of herself that Delta’s name and size weren’t publicized so much its name was inescapable.  In addition, the Delta terminal at JFK was an abomination, with low ceilings that leaked.  There had been no significant repair work since it was finished in 1965.

At La Guardia, underinvestment also prevailed (on the screen beside her, she showed the dimly lighted terminal). Delta had moved into a place formerly occupied by two airlines, and besides dismal lighting there was ineffective air conditioning.  It cost the company $60 million to set that situation right.  Until it was, the customer surveys Delta sent out came back with harsh replies, which were nevertheless guides to action.

When Delta’s JFK project was completed, all the facilities were outstanding, customers were impressed, sales soared and everybody knew Delta’s name, Grimmet said.  On the other hand, the La Guardia story continues to the present, as she eventually explained.  First, though, she had much to say about community relations.  She included media sponsorship of the New York Knickerbockers in that category, since she finds Knicks fans are quite loyal to Delta.  The airline’s 10,000 New York-based employees include volunteers for Covenant House, Junior Achievement and Habitat for Humanity, among other organizations.    

She told a couple of anecdotes.  When Delta volunteers were helping to build a Habitat house in Queens, a neighbor came up to it to say that as a Delta employee,  she was proud that Delta was doing this.  Another employee had a story about turning to Covenant House in 1992 to get herself away from living in Central Park   In time she got into normal housing, got married, had three children and got a job at Delta.  Grimmet said that its community relations program is a prime reason for Delta’s success in New York.  A Delta  workforce with many enthusiastic volunteers is also one that is in on the company’s profit-sharing plan, she said.  

At question time, she was asked about the practice of putting as many seats on a plane as can practically fit.  She said Delta doesn’t do it but didn’t comment on why others might.  Would lower fuel prices lead to lower fares?  She said that low-price periods in the past have sometimes led to foolish bargain-mongering, so there’s better discipline now, though low-fare deals can still be found, perhaps with unusual flight times.  She was asked if anything could be done about La Guardia’s perimeter rule, limiting the length of flights out of there to 1,500 miles.  She said when that rule was declared in 1986, Delta sued the Port Authority and lost.  She is hardly alone in wishing the rule abolished or greatly changed, and she hopes it will be.

Questions about what she called “the new La Guardia” and how it is being built led Grimmett to remind her audience to consider how tightly limited land area for the airport is.  One construction tactic is to move terminals closer to Grand Central Parkway, if any plots of ground can be found that are wasted space waiting to be filled.  The new La Guardia is a feat of reconstruction in space already in use.  She said that public relations must be exercised, under the motto, “First, do no harm.”  The public must be given plenty of notice that road and traffic problems could be quite bad.  She has told the Port Authority that airports compete too, and Delta needs the connections between La Guardia and JFK.  (Since the meeting, the latest estimate of the project’s cost has jumped to $5.3 billion, up from past estimates of $3.6 billion and $4.2 billion.)

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