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.

  • Rich

    My daughter and her friend recently had 2 cancelled flights on AirTran which quickly deposited 2 $300 credits for each cancellation into her account. That is great customer service.

  • Mike ABQ

    Southwest is notorious for not allowing you to stand-by for an earlier flight unless you “upgrade” to full-fare “Y” class ticket. However, recently my PHX-LAS flight was delayed by 2 hours. Before I could even ask they handed me a boarding pass for an earlier flight, apologized for the delay and informed me they were waiving the “upgrade” requirement. He then even asked me, “An early arrival into Las Vegas isn’t going to cause you any problems, will it?” Uh, no. That’s pro-active. And appreciated. Thanks, Southwest!

  • BobChi

    United’s response probably wasn’t adequate for this passenger given first class expectations. But why the assumption they could have fixed the problem in time for this particular flight? I doubt they have technicians in St. Maarten trained in doing that, and I’m pretty sure most passengers wouldn’t like to have heard, “Sorry we’re not going to take off until we fix the entertainment system in first class.”

  • dcta

    Here are the codes:

    “We so sorry you feel this way.”

    “We so sorry that you have experienced this inconvenience.”

    Note that they are never saying, “we apologize for doing XXX wrong”…or “badly” or “incompletely”, etc. Nor are they ever accepting fault in any way.

    The Risk Managers (those employees who work to avoid lawsuits) will never allow such acknowledgement.

    Having said that, and having been in a position analogous to a Risk Manager (not for an airline), I know this to be the case. It is also a way to mollify someone who is complaining but actually not in the right – where, for instance, the business did not do anything wrong.

  • VELS14

    Wow, you and I have very different views of great customer service. Would you have felt differently if your daughter and her friend were flying to leave on a cruise, and because of 2 canceled flights missed the sailing and couldn’t catch up to the cruise until 2 days later as the day in between was a day at sea? I know people who have had that happen to them. A measly $600 wouldn’t cut it for me.

    Last year I was flying to Los Angeles on US Air. The 9am flight started out being delayed due to mechanical problems, but eventually was canceled. US Air was able to get me on a 6pm flight, but that caused me to loose an entire day in LA, a day on which I had specific plans which included meeting people there.

    I understand that mechanical problems are possible, though I thought US Air should have canceled the flight much sooner and I might have made the 2pm flight which would have been much better for me, but I don’t know that for sure. That said, while I was on first class on the canceled flight, there were no FC seats available until the next day, and I wasn’t about to wait until then. They refunded my ticket completely for the flight going over to LA and gave me $250 for my trouble and because they couldn’t get me in FC, they said. They did get me in the exit row of the flight I had to LA, on the aisle. They also gave me a voucher for a round trip FC ticket to anywhere in the continental US, (no Hawaii) for which I had a year to take. I used that about 2 months later, making the reservation to use it while I was in the airport waiting for my 6pm flight They offered me a day pass to the US Air lounge, but I didn’t need it, as I already had unlimited access to it.

    I received a call from customer service in my hotel in LA giving me another apology and asking if there was anything else they could help me with. I got several emails, but I’m sure they were computer generated.

    About a month later I noticed 10,000 extra miles in my Dividend miles account. I called them and found it was an extra thank you for my patience.

    To me, that’s customer service.

  • LZ126

    And it does make a difference if you’re a member of the airline’s loyalty program. After one lengthy flight delay, we were told to enter a code into the airline’s website for compensation (without telling us what that compensation would be). I entered my FF # and got a decent amount, but my wife, who wasn’t a member, only received half that amount!