Last week, a round of thunderstorms in Atlanta kicked off a cascading effect that caused more than 3,300 flight cancellations at Delta Air Lines and untold woe to tens of thousands of travelers.
At 1,000 cancellations and counting, Delta chief operating officer Gil West said in a written statement, “While we can’t control the weather, we understand the resulting recovery has not been ideal and we apologize for that.”
Has not been ideal?!? Families were missing vacations and funerals and sleeping on concourse floors. You had high school tour groups stranded without luggage heading to Target to buy underwear and folks renting cars in New York to drive home to Atlanta.
“Has not been ideal?” An understatement that demonstrates an exec not wanting to take proper ownership of a massive systemwide screw-up that was worse than last summer’s IT disaster with more than 2,000 canceled flights.
Back then, CEO Ed Bastian recorded a video aimed at his tired, stranded customer base. “I apologize for the challenges this has created for you with your travel experience,” he said.
Challenges?!? As I noted then, those sleeping in terminals might have thought of more honest terms like predicament, hardship or even cluster-flub.
But owning up to such, er, challenges in plain English just doesn’t seem to be in the corporate exec lexicon.
So, as Delta officials dug out of its mess this week, the airline was handed a gift by its friends at United Airlines.
By now, nearly everyone has seen the video of a doctor getting dragged off a plane in Chicago after United bumped four passengers. At first, the airline tried to bribe passengers with $400 and then $800 each to give up their seats. But none took it, so airline workers conducted a lottery, and the situation went downhill when they called in security to remove a passenger who refused to budge and just wanted to go home.
Granted, the passenger was a bit dramatic, howling like a kitty with a paw caught in a mouse trap. But the iPhone video of him bloodied and being dragged up an aisle is something that would cause any corporate PR team to wet their pajamas.
So with this in mind, and plenty of time to slow down the effect of the video going crazy on the Internet, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz put out a statement: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”
The term “re-accommodate” was an arrogant mixture of airlineese and corporate spin and helped fuel the PR disaster that, as of Tuesday night, caused an $800 million stock hit.
Internet humorists had a field day mixing the term “re-accommodation” with all sorts of “Fight Club” references.
The website sorrywatch.com, dissected the apology: “Horrible horrible horrible. Who’s upset? Those poor people at UNITED. Not the passenger who was hurt and dragged off and whose image is now around the world. Not the passengers who saw his mistreatment. The apology sentence is dreadful. Think about the euphemism ‘re-accommodate.’ Think about the fact that the passenger was taken to the hospital due to the effects of his ‘re-accommodation.’ How would you feel if UNITED said they were going to ‘re-accommodate’ you?”
I’m flinching a bit.
Charlie Hayslett, an Atlanta PR veteran, said, “Those kind of non-apologies make me crazy. There are times when you stand up and say, ‘We screwed up. We’re trying to make it right and we’ll try not to let it happen again.’ I honestly don’t know why companies and executives can’t bring themselves to acknowledge it.”
But, he added, “When you have video going viral of a paying customer being dragged off a plane, that ought to trip all the wires” in the corporate communication department.
Remember, Munoz wasn’t flying off the handle. He’s an executive with a squadron of well-paid minions, and he had a day to come up with the statement.
Paul Pendergrass, a former Coke exec who writes the humorous blog aspokesman.com, said PR strategies just haven’t kept up with the speed of digital technology. Also, he said, many execs speak with the company’s lawyers in mind, ever worried that empathy might be confused with legal culpability.
I called George Hobica, who runs the airfarewatchdog.com blog. He said airlines, being as big as they are without real competition, really just don’t care.
“They can get away with it,” he said. “Where are you gonna go? You can hate us now and vow to never fly us again but we’ll see you again next year.”
By the way, he added, “Munoz came from the railroads. He might think he’s still moving cattle.”
A month ago Munoz was named “PRWeek’s “Communicator of the Year” for his “efforts over the past year to better engage with employees and customers as he led a dramatic transformation at the airline.”
By Tuesday, he — or those around him — regained that Communicator status, calling the incident “a truly horrific event,” and adding “I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.
“It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”
Until, of course, the next crisis blows up.