Delta Air Lines just issued a big apology and it’s a lesson in effective leadership

Long ago, there was a movie with a famous quote: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

It’s actually a silly rule. (The actress who had to say it later explained that she hated it.) People in love should always say they’re sorry.

Business people do that too. And luckily we have a very good example to look at this week.

It’s the apology message that Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian sent to SkyMiles members, which the airline has broadcast to millions more passengers through its website, the media and even Bastian’s personal LinkedIn page.

Let’s set the tone and explain why it works so well.

‘Nothing fun about flying’

If you’ve been on a plane lately, or heard about air travel this summer, you know it’s a fraught situation. Planes are often overbooked, flights are delayed and cancelled, airline employees are overworked and passengers are unhappy.

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

Perhaps the best summary of the situation I’ve seen came from a flight attendant who recently went viral with her summer 2022 travel advice. Her first suggestion: Don’t fly when you can drive.

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

If you’re flying with Delta Air Lines specifically, you’re flying with an airline where the pilots are picking for a new contract, and the overbooking issues have gotten so bad recently that Delta ended up offering passengers $10,000 to give up their seat and re-route.

In return, Delta wanted to apologize for the delays and cancellations and make things right for a better experience in the future.

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

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because it showed a general understanding of what an apology can and cannot do, because it’s organized with an “up, then down, then ‘up'” framework, and because it used five key emotions throughout.

For what it’s worth

For starters, we must recognize that there’s not much an airline can do to make you happy if your flight is canceled and your vacation plans or business trip is ruined as a result.

An apology isn’t 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 should give it a try, even if you don’t think it will pay much. You don’t want your passengers to think afterwards, “They ruined our vacation, and then they didn’t even apologize!”

This also means that in most business situations it is very difficult to get an apology right, but there are many easy ways to get it wrong.

Ironically, it becomes easier to come up with a decent apology when you understand that almost nothing you can say can make things right for your most unjust customers.

1. Excitement

The message starts with the use of an important emotion. It starts with this sentence:

“The summer travel season is in full swing and I share the excitement of so many of you returning to the skies as restrictions are lifted and entire regions of the world reopen.”

This communicates both a subtle sense of community and a positive emotion (“excitement”), interspersed with a quick description of the hardships we have endured as a people. Always start this way if you can.

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Next, repent. And it doesn’t take long to get into it:

“At the same time, I know that many of you may have experienced disruption, sometimes significant, in your travels as we build our operation from the depths of 2020 while simultaneously accommodating a record level of demand.

If you have recently experienced delays and cancellations, I apologize.”

Here’s the way to do it: a quick summary of the problem and a direct, unadorned apology. Get in, do what you have to do and go out again.

Self confidence

From here on, the next key point is about some confident claims about Delta’s overall success:

“For years we have established Delta as the industry leader in reliability, and while most of our flights continue to fly 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, including the best reliability in the business.”

Again, if your flight is delayed, you’re probably reassured, but Delta tells you the overall record is pretty good? Not really. But the point is to remind and reassure that the current problems must be an aberration.


You can’t go wrong with gratitude; even if you thank someone other than the intended audience. So here’s Bastian making sure to thank and encourage Delta’s employees:

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

I would like to thank them for their continued professionalism, resilience and the truly outstanding service they continue to deliver on a daily basis.”

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This one feels especially appropriate as Delta passengers may encounter protesting Delta employees on their way to the airport.

To trust

Everything else so far is to take you to this last point, where Delta explains why the airline thinks you should rely on it going forward:

“Things won’t change overnight, but we’re on the road to a steady recovery. We’ve included more flexibility for your travel plans and adjusting our summer schedule so we can recover more quickly if issues arise. “

It also includes some specifics:

strategic crew planning travel waivers in anticipation of inclement weather earlier boarding times and schedule changes to reduce delays “peach corps” sourcing of corporate office workers to assist with operations accelerated recruitment

Will it work? Who can tell? But one of the nice things about watching the airline industry is the extent to which they have to solve their problems in real time, in the public eye, and with every step watched by an army of analysts, investors and journalists.

That’s why I always suggest that business leaders in every industry should follow the airlines, and while I’ve published a free ebook of lessons for you to learn: Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for US Airlines Leaders.

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

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

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not’s.

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