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The Case of Delta Airlines: “Cancel Cancellations Promise”

Published on
August 17, 2016

Two major outages at Southwest Airlines and Delta have raised questions about the IT systems of an airline industry already facing issues with crumbling infrastructure and growing air traffic. More questions were raised about how each airline managed the public and media amid thousands of cancelled flights. Delta specifically came under fire as the crisis followed a public promise from the airline to “Cancel Cancellations”.

Appreciating the fact that the cancellations caused many personal and business disruptions, the amount of media attention and public scrutiny was, perhaps overstated, especially given that no airline could ever be expected to guarantee no cancellations on any of their thousands of scheduled flights. Somehow though, this expectation was very real to the customers of Delta this week.

Delta staked its brand with the promise to “Cancel Cancellations”, a promise that cannot be kept and should not have been made. That is where the airline went wrong and what gave fuel to the fire for the thousands of diverted and delayed customers of the airline. That aside, I believe Delta managed the crisis quite well and here is why.

  • The CEO, Ed Bastian, stepped up immediately taking cues from his PR team to communicate broadly to customers about the situation in real time. The video had all critical facets of a proper response that I would recommend to our clients in this situation- Apologize, Explain and Offer Refunds.  Despite criticism about the backdrop of the video, I thought it was an incredibly smart move to have the bustling workroom filled with people trying to solve the problem in the background.  It demonstrated transparency. It reflected the work that was ongoing even in the wee hours of the morning to correct the mistake.
  • There was 24 hour response on social and corporate channels to address concerns, connect families to stranded passengers, rebook flights, redeem vouchers, and make formal complaints. They allowed people to vent publicly without screening posts- Allowing the platform to empower customers. Some criticised the airline for lacking personal touch, but I disagree. Delta’s responses were quick, personalized and showcased understanding and action.
  • Remained calm, collected and kept things in perspective.  Delayed flights and stranded people is of course a serious issue and should be handled with honesty, transparency and empathy. It was however, at the end of the day just cancelled flights. Everyone got home or got to work safely (eventually). Delta, quite appropriately, did not leap into full crisis level 3 and instead treated the situation by working to solve the problem and get people where they needed to go. Any over the top response or unauthentic extravagant apology would have been a mistake.
  • Went the extra mile. Delta went beyond the call of duty by sending personalized letters, thank you notes and upgrades to people’s homes.  In one instance, Delta found a tweet from a man who missed his anniversary dinner due to the cancellations—Delta sent the wife flowers accepting responsibility for the missed anniversary.   How is that for personal touch?

What was missing? Appropriate messaging for the situation.  I would have advised Delta to humanize the company, accept that the company, like anything else, has flaws. I would have developed messaging that accepted responsibility, showcased empathy but also put things into perspective.

Bottom Line: Companies, like people, are always vulnerable to mistakes, errors, flaws and this will always be the case.   Even with the best of intentions and best preparations, companies can and will find themselves in hot water. As customers, we have a right to be refunded for what was lost and an apology is warranted as well, but let’s cut Delta some slack and recognize the work they did immediately following the glitch and the work they continue to do to win back lost customers.  At the end of the day, nobody’s perfect.

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