Delta Air Lines Just Issued a Big Apology, and It’s a Lesson in Effective Leadership

A long time ago there was a movie with a famous quote: “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.”

It’s a stupid line, actually. (The actress who was to say it later explained that she hated it.) Lovers have to say they’re sorry all the time.

Business people too. And luckily, this week we have a very good example to watch.

This is the message of apology from Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian sent to SkyMiles membersand which the airline broadcast to millions more passengers through its website, media and even Bastian’s personal LinkedIn page.

Let’s set the stage and break down why it works so well.

“Nothing pleasant about the flight”

If you’ve flown recently or heard anything about air travel this summer, you know the situation is tough. Planes are often overbooked, flights are delayed and canceled, airline employees are overworked, and passengers are unhappy.

On Saturday, according to FlightAware, nearly 650 US flights were canceled and 5,200 delayed (not specific to Delta).

Perhaps the best summary of the situation I’ve seen comes from a flight attendant who recently went viral with her summer 2022 travel tips. Her first suggestion: Don’t fly if you know conduct.

(“I’m not kidding,” she wrote. “There’s nothing nice about stealing right now.”)

If you’re flying with Delta Air Lines specifically, you’re flying on an airline where pilots are picketing for a new contract, and the overbooking issues got so bad recently that Delta ended up offering passengers $10,000 each to drop out. their seat and catch a later flight.

Against this, Delta wanted to apologize for its delays and cancellations, and put things in place for a better experience in the future.

I think the airline’s apology message worked for three reasons:

  • because it showed a comprehensive understanding of what an apology can and cannot do,
  • because it is organized with an “up, then down, then ‘up'” framework, and
  • because he tapped into five key emotions throughout.

For what it’s worth

Initially, we must recognize that if your flight is canceled and your vacation plans or business trip are scuttled as a result, there is little an airline can do to make you happy.

An excuse will not be worth the electrons it takes to send it. But, the only thing worse than an ineffective apology is no apology at all.

In other words, you have to give it a try, even if you don’t think it will do you much good. You don’t want your passengers to say to themselves after the fact: “They ruined our vacation, and then they didn’t even apologize!”

It also means that in most business situations, it’s very difficult to apologize well, but there are many easy ways to get it wrong.

Ironically, it becomes easier to offer a decent apology when you realize that almost nothing you can say could fix the situation for your most aggrieved customers.

1. Excitement

The message begins by tapping into an important emotion. It begins with this sentence:

“The summer travel season is well underway, and I share the excitement of so many of you returning to the skies as restrictions lift and entire regions of the world reopen.”

It communicates both a subtle sense of community and a positive emotion (“excitement”), juxtaposed with a quick description of the hardships we’ve been through as a people. Always start this way if you can.


Next, contrition. And it doesn’t take long to get started:

“At the same time, I know many of you may have experienced disruptions, sometimes significant, to your travels as we rebuild our operations from the depths of 2020 while meeting record high demand.

If you’ve experienced any delays and cancellations recently, I apologize.”

Here’s how to do it: a brief summary of the problem and a straightforward, no-nonsense apology. Get in, do what you have to do, and get out.


From there, the next important point involves confident assertions about Delta’s overall success:

“We have spent years making Delta the industry leader in reliability, and while the majority of our flights continue to operate on time, this level of disruption and uncertainty is unacceptable.

You choose to invest your time, resources and loyalty with Delta and rightly expect a world-class experience on every flight, and that includes industry-leading reliability. »

Again, are you likely to be reassured if your flight is delayed but Delta tells you that its overall track record is pretty good? Not really. But, it is a reminder and reassurance that the current problems must be an aberration.


You can’t go wrong with gratitude; even when thanking someone other than the intended audience. So here, Bastian makes sure to thank and encourage Delta employees:

“Despite the historic challenges facing our industry, Delta’s team of more than 75,000 professionals worldwide remains focused on providing the best care for you and your loved ones.

I want to thank them for their continued professionalism, resilience and the truly exceptional service they continue to provide on a daily basis.”

This one seems particularly fitting given that Delta passengers on their way to the airport might actually encounter protesting Delta employees.


Everything else so far is to get you to that final point, where Delta explains why the airline thinks you should trust it in the future:

“Things won’t change overnight, but we’re on the path to a steady recovery. Steps we’ve taken include offering more flexibility for your travel plans and adjusting our work schedule. summer so that when challenges arise, we can bounce back faster.”

It also specifies some specifics:

  • strategic crew planning
  • travel waivers in case of bad weather
  • early boarding times and schedule changes to reduce delays
  • “Peach Corps” brings in employees from head office to help with operations
  • accelerated hiring

Will it work? Who can say? But one of the fun things about watching the airline industry is the extent to which it has to solve its problems in real time, in the public eye and at every step watched by an army of analysts, investors and journalists.

That’s why I always suggest business leaders in any industry follow the airlines, and even though I’ve released a free ebook of lessons you can learn: Flying business class: 12 rules for US airline executives.

And if that doesn’t work, contact Bastian himself.

“People email me every day, every hour, and that’s a good way,” he said last year. “If anyone needs help, just send me a note. I’ll take care of you.”

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