Delta puts own stamp on ASA; Takeover of ground operations aimed at reducing lost bags and solving other problems.

Carrier absorbs 1,230 ASA employees into its fold

When much of Atlantic Southeast Airlines' former staff reports for work at the Atlanta airport these days, they're clocking in for a new employer --- Delta Air Lines.

Still trying to get a handle on the misplaced bags and other problems that have plagued the regional carrier's Atlanta operations for years, Delta has just absorbed about 1,230 ASA employees who fuel aircraft, board passengers, and load and sort luggage. The Atlanta-based company, a former subsidiary of Delta, flies about one out of six Delta customers at the airport.

As a result of the changeover, Delta's local ground-handling staff jumped 25 percent to about 6,000 employees. It also picked up responsibility for about 400 extra flights a day in Atlanta --- almost 70 percent more than before. ASA's total employment, meanwhile, fell from about 6,000 to 4,700.

Executives say customers will see only better service as a result of the switch. Charged with making good on the prediction is Wayne Aaron, vice president of Delta Connection.

"There has been a ton of planning for this," said the 38-year-old Atlanta native, who was put in charge of overseeing Delta's feeder airlines in April, about a month after Delta announced that it was taking over ASA's ground operations in Atlanta on June 1. He expects better on-time performance and fewer lost bags and cancellations to eventually result.

ASA President Bryan LaBrecque, who runs the unit for Utah-based parent SkyWest, also predicted a smooth transition because the former ASA employees will continue in their old jobs, at least initially.

"In some cases these people will be stepping on the same buses they had . . . and checking in with the same supervisors they had," said LaBrecque. "The customer won't even know the difference."

So how will the change lead to improvements? Delta expects that to come through more employee training and more flexibility to use ASA's gates and plane parking areas in concert with areas where it already handles ground operations for other regional partners that operate Delta Connection flights. It also says ex-ASA workers will generally get better pay.

The transition started Friday. Delta reported that 77 percent of ASA's flights and 86 percent of Delta's flights arrived on-time in Atlanta during the first three days --- on par with previous performance.

"This is the quickest I've gotten my luggage on Delta," said Hugh Butler, an accountant from Houston, whose suitcases were already on the baggage claim carousel when he walked up after arriving on a Delta Connection flight to Atlanta.

Keith Dominick, who was returning from a sales trip to Richmond, said he had to wait about 15 minutes to pick up his luggage, about normal. But his flight also took off about 45 minutes late because the previous flight arrived late.

"Every week's different," said Dominick, of Altanta. "Some weeks are good, and some weeks every flight's late."

Delta's absorption of ASA ground crews is part of a broader move to improve service at its growing stable of Delta Connnection carriers, whose jets all fly under the Delta Connection banner but belong to different companies.

Aaron said improved performance is one of the top corporate goals this year. The airline has increasingly relied on regional carriers as it shifted more big jets to international routes. In Atlanta, the number of regional carriers flying Delta passengers has doubled over the past year, from three to six. Systemwide, Delta expects to have nine regional carriers by the end of the year, said Aaron.

"It's two-thirds of our departures. It's a substantial part of our business," he said.

Delta is adding 76-seat regional jets with first-class cabins on some of its contract carriers, hoping to make high-mileage business fliers happier to find themselves on the smaller jets. It is considering adding first-class cabins to its 70-seat jets as well. Delta says it also plans to take over cleaning of its regional carrier's jets and to refurbish interiors, starting with more comfortable seat cushions.

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