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 The Brancatelli File

joe FLYING SONG
IS DICKENSIAN


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

May 6, 2004 -- Flying with Song, Delta Air Lines' year-old, low-fare "service," is Dickensian. By that I mean it is the best of low-fare carriers and the worst of low-fare carriers.

Let's start with the best of times: Song is the most fully formed attempt at a low-fare operation ever mounted by a Big Six carrier. In fact, it is so good that if you have to fly a Big Six airline in coach, try to find one of Song's 140 daily flights, which are basically concentrated where Delta has been hammered by JetBlue Airways. In comparison to any other Big Six coach ride, Song's seats are more comfortable, its fares are more reasonable, its in-flight experience is more humane, its food is more palatable and it offers in-flight television and musical diversions.

The worst of times? Easy. Song is a pastel parody of JetBlue, a cynical corporate attempt to create buzz by committee. It is soulless. It is derivative. It is ugly to look at--and even worse to watch operate. Worst of all, it is hemorrhaging cash, a costly failure that may become the textbook example of how to get it wrong when you're trying to rip off a hot, new competitor that almost always gets it right.

Before I detail some best/worst aspects of Song gleaned from a passel of recent flights, let's reset the scene for business travelers who may never have heard of Song. The all-coach operation launched on April 15, 2003, as a replacement for Delta Express, Delta's previous failed attempt at low-fare flying. By its own admission, Delta spent at least $65 million developing Song. It is built around a fleet of 36 old Boeing 757s that have been retrofitted with 199 coach chairs and, after months of delays, at-your-seat television programming. The Song service--it's not technically or legally an airline and every Song flight also has a corresponding Delta flight number--is staffed with employees drawn from the Delta workforce. In virtually every aspect of its product, design and service delivery, it is a clone of JetBlue, the profitable, 38-month-old phenomenon that is already the nation's tenth-largest carrier.

Oh, one other thing: Song has been such a marketing and financial boondoggle--depending on who you believe, its operating costs are 20 to 40 percent higher than JetBlue and its passenger loads and average fares are substantially lower--that a huge expansion planned for this spring was abandoned. Delta recently launched new routes from Kennedy to compete where JetBlue already flies--notably Denver, San Diego and San Juan--but only one (Fort Myers) was given to Song. They were all supposed to be launched by Song--Song president John Selvaggio even boasted about the expansion in a speech last November--but Song's numbers seem to be getting worse, not better. So, for now, Song is a low-fare service that's vamping for time.

But back to the best/worst stuff.

Let's start with seat comfort. Song offers 33 inches of seat pitch, which is one to three inches more than you'll find on most low-fare and Big Six carriers. More to the point, it was one inch more than JetBlue was offering when Song was announced on January 29, 2003. But the Song brain trust was apparently unaware that JetBlue had already been planning to pull a row of seats from its planes. So JetBlue now offers 34 inches of legroom at about 60 percent of its seats.

Song's cabins and leather chairs are decked out in garish oranges, lime greens, purples and light blues. Garish, I admit, is a personal judgment. But it's a fact that those colors will go out of style in a year or two while JetBlue's navy blue/gray palette will still be serviceable. If Song lasts, it will have to redo its colors, which is not something you should be doing if you're trying to keep costs down to compete with the most successful low-cost start-up of the era.

Oh, one more thing about Song's colors: Some genius in Atlanta chose light blue for the seatbacks and the seat cushions. You can see the folly of that decision even a year into the game: Many of the chairs on my flights were scuffed and tattooed with ballpoint pen marks. Another costly mistake. And if the eyes are fooled (or blinded) by the year-old retrofit of the cabin, they won't be tricked by the lavatories. They are old and tatty.

The in-flight television? Song couldn't use the DirecTV-powered service created for (and now owned by) JetBlue, so it cobbled together a system using the Dish Network and Matsushita Avionics. The systems were originally promised for October, six months after Song launched, but Delta didn't get all 36 planes outfitted until last week. That should give you some idea of the problems the systems have created. On some flights I rode recently, four of the 24 channels (including CNN and ESPN) were off the air. A fifth, MSNBC, had no sound. And a sixth, the Learning Channel, displayed this message instead: "ATTENTION This is a subscription channel which has not been purchased." (Song isn't alone: Northwest Airlines has been plagued by serious glitches with its new Matsushita in-flight entertainment system.)

Like a lot of other Big Six carriers, Delta peddles food on Song flights. I despise in-flight food, but give Song credit. The sandwiches and salads created by New York chef Michael Nichan are extremely tasty and seem quite fresh. A menu dated February 15 and still being used during all my April flights offered a salad of chicken and baby spinach and a vegan concoction: chopped, grilled vegetables, brown rice and tofu stuffed into flatbread. There was also the Song Signature, the supposed special of the day. But the Song Signature on all of my flights in April was the same: ham and cheese on cranberry-walnut bread.

But the best/worst nature of Song reared its Dickensian head even here. Song touts the healthy nature of the cuisine. So why did the salad come with 1.5 ounces of dressing that had 13 grams of fat? And why was the ham-and-cheese sandwich accompanied by packet of honey mustard that had 11 grams of fat? How can a supposedly healthy menu turn a fat-free food like mustard into a dietary landmine?

But the worst gets even worse. Dressings and condiments come in little packets that are virtually impossible to open. Puncturing the packets with a pen point or jabbing at them with the tine of a plastic fork eventually causes them to burst and dribble all over the tray table, seats and carpet. That mess is expensive for a low-fare airline to clean. But then none of the food on offer in-flight even comes with a plate. And you haven't seen costly cleanup until you've opened a flatbread sandwich stuffed with chopped veggies that go cascading all over the cabin when the bag is opened. This is no way to keep costs low, that's for sure. (By the way, the lunch options above sell for $8 a pop. Bring cash if you must eat because Song's credit card machines are frequently inoperable.)

I've got dozens more examples of best/worst behavior, but you get an idea of the chaotic silliness that ensures Song will end up on the scrap heap along with Continental Lite, US Airways' Metrojet, United's Shuttle and the other failed Big Six low-fare ventures. And it's hard to have much sympathy for Song, especially after hearing the lead flight attendant on one West Palm Beach-Kennedy segment last month come on the intercom and repeatedly ridicule "our little blue friends" at the next gate.

I didn't bother to tell the flight attendant that I, at least, was only flying Song that particular day because all five of JetBlue's West Palm Beach-JFK flights were sold out. I just spread out in my empty row--I had my pick of 13 empty rows on that flight, one of only two that Song operates on the route--and tried to get a picture on the malfunctioning channel that was supposed to be broadcasting CNN.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.