ATLANTA -- Sam Massell -- travel agent, former mayor and local booster -- says there hasn't been such a ruckus here since the day Coca-Cola changed its formula.
In one short month, a string of gaffes and potentially dangerous errors by Delta Air Lines pilots has propelled Atlanta's staid, solid, home-town airline onto the front pages of major newspapers and
the network newscasts day after day.
Delta also has been ridiculed on the Johnny Carson and David Letterman television shows, by editorial cartoonists across the country and even by the Atlanta Constitution newspaper at home.
"I had a customer call up wanting to buy a 'Mystery Trip' for his wife," Massell said. "He specified he wanted Delta, because even the pilot wouldn't know where they were going to land."
Since mid-June, Delta pilots have landed at the wrong city in Kentucky; landed on the wrong runway in Boston; nearly crashed a Boeing 767 into the Pacific after accidentally shutting down the engines on takeoff, and almost taken off into the path of another jet taking off at the opposite end of a runway in Nashville.
In perhaps the most terrifying incident, a Delta jumbo jet strayed 60 miles off course on a clear day over the North Atlantic and nearly collided with a another jumbo jet.
After that near-collision July 8, the Federal Aviation Administration decided it was time to look over Delta's pilot training program. A team of seven inspectors from around the country arrived here Thursday night to join FAA inspectors based in Atlanta to reconstruct the incidents in an effort to discover any commonalities among them.
The inspection, which began Friday, will take three to six weeks and include reviews of training programs for each type of plane involved in the incidents. Because the incidents involved four different types of aircraft, officials say at this point they cannot conceive of discovering any large, sweeping flaw spread across Delta's training programs.
Yet, they point out, there are FAA flight rules that cover the circumstances involved in each of the incidents, and those rules were not followed. "If procedures had been followed, these incidents would not have happened," said William Berry, manager of the FAA's Atlanta flight standards division.
Delta's flight training program last underwent a special investigation in late 1985, three months after a Delta L1011 crashed in a thunderstorm at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, killing 133 people.
FAA inspectors found problems in the procedures used in refresher courses taken by experienced L1011 crews, and in the FAA review they noted that some pilots reported for training unprepared, with an unprofessional attitude and expectations of a "no-sweat, no-challenge" session.
But that was a one-shot problem. That there would be such a string of incidents has perplexed the Atlanta community, where loyalty to the home-town airline runs strong.
"There is a sense of mystification. They don't understand it," said James Stogner, operations manager of Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport. "Why would a senior captain get 60 miles off course? Why would two pilots land on the wrong runway or at the wrong airport? This is more incidents happening in a shorter period of time than I've ever seen in my career."
What is most painful and bewildering for Delta is that the airline, which has a reputation in the aviation industry as well-run and well-managed, never before has faced anything remotely similar. After its last major FAA inspection 14 months ago, Delta was fined $120,400 for safety violations -- one of the lowest fines the FAA handed out. Eastern Air Lines, by contrast, recently paid a $9.5 million fine for safety and maintenance violations, setting a record in the industry.
Still, it is Delta that has caught Johnny Carson's attention: "Have you heard Delta's new slogan?" he gleefully asks his late-night television audience. "Fly to Cleveland. See the world."
At first, Delta tried to put the best face on it.
"We don't even serve Frankfort," Delta spokesman Jim Ewing said when describing how a Delta jetliner flew out of a thunderstorm and landed at Frankfort's small, municipal airport instead of Lexington Airport, 19 miles away.
But Delta's mood has grown progressively worse.
The television footage last Thursday of a wheel falling off a Delta jet was too much to bear, officials said. No one had covered a Continental Airlines jet after it took off from the wrong runway in Dallas or the grass fire that started in Salt Lake City after a jetliner's engines overheated on the runway.
"A tire blowing on a Delta jet is news," complained Mike Bowen, a Delta pilot. "A tire blowing on a United flight is not news."
Local travel agencies say the publicity has prompted a few travelers to choose other airlines, but for the most part, Delta's business remains strong and its passengers loyal. Over the years, Delta has compiled one of the lowest consumer-complaint records of a major airline; statistics released recently by the Transportation Department listed Delta as the largest carrier with the fewest complaints.
Delta began in 1929 as a crop-dusting operation. It moved to Monroe, La., where the cotton fields were larger, and took the name Delta from the Mississippi River. Delta moved to Atlanta in 1940 and is now Georgia's second largest employer with an annual local payroll of $700 million.
Around Atlanta, there is much talk about the "Delta family." David Garrett, the recently retired chairman, started at Delta as a reservations clerk. Five years ago, Delta employes bought the company a Boeing 767 valued at $50 million. Atlantans also tell the story of the manager of Delta's jet base who was called into work one night because paint was peeling from a plane.
When Delta recently edged out Eastern to become the "official" airline of Walt Disney World, the role seemed to personify everything Delta had come to represent.
"Delta doesn't want to be known as the Las Vegas airline," airport operations manager Stogner said. "They want to be known as the Walt Disney airline, because that has connotations of Snow White and Ol' Yeller."
The airline certainly does not want the publicity it has received from the incidents or the FAA investigation.
Under FAA rules, airline pilots are required to complete a training course, including ground school, for each different cockpit seat they occupy. The flight engineer on a Boeing 737 must complete training before he or she can copilot on the same plane; training also precedes becoming a flight engineer on a DC9.
Every six months, captains are required to take two-day refresher courses; copilots and flight engineers are required to complete refresher training once a year.
The FAA investigation is centering on the near-collision over the North Atlanic near Newfoundland and an apparent attempt to cover it up. The Delta L1011 jet, carrying 153 passengers, was about three hours into a flight from London to Cincinnati when it crossed below a Continental jetliner carrying 399 passengers from London to Newark. The incident was observed by flight-deck crews on American Airlines and Pan American World Airways jetliners, and solutions to the problem were discussed among the four crews. At one point, a suggestion was made not to report the incident to air traffic controllers, according to sources close to the investigation.
But the conversation was recorded by a U.S. Air Force jet in the area at the time, and the tape recording was turned over to the Canadian Aviation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident.
The captain of the Delta L1011 is a 33-year veteran of the company, although aviation sources say he was making only his 11th Atlantic crossing as captain when he strayed off course.
Although Delta's troubles have largely been the source of jokes, they come at a time when air safety is a matter of serious concern. A panel of aviation experts last week urged the Presidential Aviation Safety Commission to reorganize the FAA to ensure that safety is maintained.
"The laughter, it's like whistling in the dark," Massell said. "People are nervous. People are very concerned about safety when they travel. They get more concerned, almost to an extreme degree, following an incident that gets national media attention."