Fashion designer to stars will redo Delta uniforms

Money-losing airline silent on Tyler's pay

February 04, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

What does a Delta Air Lines gate agent have in common with Sarah Jessica Parker and Pierce Brosnan?

Answer: They have the same fashion designer.

Three weeks after reporting a $773 million loss for the year, Delta said yesterday that it had hired celebrity fashion designer Richard Tyler to create a uniform for 30,000 customer-service employees, including flight attendants, gate workers and ticket agents.

Some industry experts said they were baffled by the announcement's tone and its timing, given that the struggling airline has laid off thousands of workers and is asking pilots to take a 30 percent pay cut.

Delta said the program "has been developed in response to employee and customer feedback requesting updated, sophisticated uniforms."

`Attention to detail'

It noted Tyler's "refined attention to detail," which it said makes him "unique among American designers and often compared to the fine European couturiers." It also noted that celebrities who have worn his designs include Catherine Zeta Jones, Stockard Channing and Patrick Stewart.

"So they're losing a billion dollars a year, they're asking for pay cuts, and they decide its time to hire a big-name fashion designer?" said Joe Brancatelli, a business travel consultant and columnist known for his hard-nosed critiques of the industry. "Yeah, that's going to fix things."

For months, Delta executives have been warning employees they must make sacrifices to stem the airline's losses, which have totaled nearly $3 billion over the past three years. Pilots have been asked to take a 30 percent pay cut, and more than 16,000 Delta employees have been laid off since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Delta spokeswoman Peggy Estes would not disclose how much Tyler will be paid to create the outfits, which are to be unveiled in 2006.

"This is part of our long-term strategy to build and strengthen our brand, and to increase customer and employee satisfaction," Estes said.

`Classic' look

The new uniforms will have "a classic yet comfortable new look," Sharon Wibben, Delta's senior vice president of in-flight service, said in a news release.

Mike Boyd, an airline consultant with the Boyd Group of Evergreen, Colo., said, "There's nothing wrong with updating your uniforms; it's part of the company's brand."

But he took issue with how Delta unveiled the new plan.

"When you paint it like this, talk about hiring this froufrou firm to raise us to a new, higher level of couture, it's kind of hard to reconcile when you're asking for big concessions," Boyd said.

A spokeswoman for the pilots union declined to comment on the fashion update. Pilot uniforms won't be affected by the change, Estes said.

"Pilot uniforms haven't changed in forever, I think," she said.

She said she hopes the new outfits will lead to better customer service. "We're hoping that this will inspire our employees to perform at their best," she said.

Consultant Brancatelli remained unconvinced.

"It's pretty clear that Delta has no idea what they're doing," he said. "The emperor has no clothes."

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