Why you shouldn’t accept your airline’s apology

If you’ve experienced a recent flight delay or service disruption, then you probably know that for better or worse, no one says “I’m sorry” like an airline.

A well-crafted apology is often just the beginning. Gift cards, credits and loyalty points — lots of loyalty points — frequently follow. And the mea culpas appear to work. Most passengers accept them and move on.

Well, maybe they shouldn’t.

A closer look at the airline industry’s “sorries” suggests they sometimes lack sincerity and show a remarkable unwillingness to fix the problem that caused the complaint in the first place. In other words, it’s more like hush money than an apology.

Airline apology innovations may not sound like big news, but they are. Take the form letter, for example. A few years ago, these e-mails were riddled with typos and grammatical errors. But almost overnight, they began to look almost literary. Sure enough, one airline vice president admitted to me that his company had hired English majors to write the letters. Brilliant.

Gift cards are also parceled out when things go wrong. If you experience “less than exceptional” service on Delta Air Lines, it sometimes offers certificates that can be used at Avis, Carnival and Lowe’s. El Al gives aggrieved customers the choice of a gift card for dinner at a kosher restaurant, gift baskets, frequent-flier points or duty-free vouchers.

The most customer-focused companies don’t wait for the complaint; they e-mail the apology and deposit the miles into your account before you can make a phone call.

But do customers really want that stuff? Sure, but that’s not all. When Mitch Robertson, a professor from O’Fallon, Ill., complained about an unpleasant Southwest Airlines flight, it responded swiftly by crediting him with 12,180 points, the value of his one-way fare. It also sent a personal response saying it was “truly sorry” for the incident.

Robertson liked Southwest’s answer because it was quick, personal and addressed each issue he’d brought up in his complaint.

“Southwest admitted that there were mistakes, didn’t make excuses and offered sincere and profound apologies,” he says.

That contrasts sharply with the “apology” Jane Coloccia says she received after flying in first class from St. Maarten to Newark on United Airlines. “The second we took off, the flight attendant made an announcement that the left hand of the first-class section had no audio or video entertainment, and he just handed out these pre-printed apology cards with a tracking number on them,” remembers Coloccia, a communications consultant from New York. “We had to go online and fill in that tracking number, and I just got this e-mail back giving me 2,000 miles in my account.”

To her, the apology seemed half-hearted. United must have known its entertainment system wasn’t working, but instead of fixing it, it parceled out coupons, she says. What’s more, her 2,000-mile credit wouldn’t even buy a decent bouquet of flowers.

Because I’m a consumer advocate, airlines often say they’re sorry to me. Whenever two legacy airlines merge, it’s usually followed by something I like to call the Apology Tour, when I’m summoned to executive offices, and they apologize for the ridiculous number of customer service complaints generated in the last year.

Experts say we shouldn’t be overly impressed with the volume or the creativity of the airline industry’s apologies. Advice columnist April Masini calls the increase in mea culpas “apology inflation” and says it’s turned “I’m sorry” into two “cheap and tawdry” words.

Apology critic Jennifer Thomas, co-author of When Sorry Isn’t Enough: Making Things Right with Those You Love, says airlines fail to take responsibility, repent or ask for forgiveness. “Customers know talk is cheap,” she says.

Flexibility on both sides may be in order. On the one hand, “too much indignation or entitlement on the part of the travelers will drive a one-size-fits-all corporate response that ends up doing the truly mistreated a disservice,” says psychologist and relationships expert Guy Grenier.

On the other, airlines should read responses they get to apologies, especially canned regrets. When Sean Ryan complained to JetBlue that its reply was insincere, the commercial real estate agent from Yorba Linda, Calif., was surprised to find a quick offer of a $150 credit, and a sincere apology for being so insincere.

“That’s an improvement,” says Ryan. Without a doubt.

Do you think airline apologies are usually sincere?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Nicole Phillips

    Just a comment about the one disappointed by the entertainment system not working. One of my flights from Halifax to London (6 hr overnight flight) the system didn’t work in the whole plane…well, cattle class. It would show 15 min or so of a movie and stop. The pilot said…well, sorry folks, but there were two options…have the flight delayed so someone could spend 5 hours fixing it, or get you to your destination on time…well, I’d rather get to my destination on time. Pull out a book (yes, this was in the dark ages of 2008 before tablets) or magazine, or close your eyes and try to sleep. There would’ve been a lot more screaming if the plane was delayed. People are too entitled sometimes…

  • Alan Gore

    Folks, one word: Kindle!

  • AJPeabody

    Apologies cannot be made by a corporation. A true apology requires a human being and actual regret, not a computer generated string of crafted phrases. I realize this is impractical when a corporation must handle thousands of complaints at a time, so let’s go with the next best thing: A meaningful effort to make things right. We do this all the time in real life: A refund, a bouquet, a comped dessert, a freebie. The article has examples of good and bad responses by airlines. Maybe there should be more of the former and fewer of the latter, and leave the 2,000 air pesos for the unwarranted complainers.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    A corporation should look at itself when it has to handle thousands of complaints at a time.
    It is discouraging that it almost never happens.
    Never with the legacy airlines.

  • Mikael Mik

    Laptop + Movie + Headphones….Or play games… Plenty of ways to entertain without an in flight movie.

  • John Keahey

    Airline apologies generally take the form: We’re sorry you feel that way”. Politicians and entertainers who insult usually say “I apologize to anyone who was offended.” It’s very seldom: “I apologize for saying such a stupid, ill considered remark.” That’s the only kind of apology I would accept.

  • Miami510

    I couldn’t vote… because I think the question demands we read more into a corporate apology than is really there. There would be ten times the number of
    comments if there were no apology… sincere or otherwise.

    “Sorry about the bathroom,” is pro-forma, but it is, what it is. Besides, what would be the reaction to an email from the CEO that said,

    Dear Mrs. Pressedknees,

    How personally saddened I was to learn that one of the bathrooms on our flight # 4645 was out of order and your terrible discomfort. I personally was so upset
    that I couldn’t concentrate on the 54,000 employees and 305,572 flights per day
    that I am responsible for when I heard about the bathroom on your flight. Please, and I beseech you, to forgive us, and in compensation, please use the coupon for a free bottle of water on your next flight with us.