USA Today has an article about the multitude of apologies that are coming from airlines for flight delays or disruptions in service, and urges us to think twice before accepting them and moving on. As the article notes, the apology is usually just a first step in an airline’s efforts and are often followed up with offers of credits, loyalty points, and gift cards as way to placate disgruntled passengers.
However, even though the airlines’ offers of compensation can seem appealing, “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.”
A good example is an apology that United Airlines issued to Jane Coloccia for her flight from St. Maarten to Newark, where the airline “just handed out these pre-printed apology cards with a tracking number on them” after announcing that audio and video entertainment would not be available in her section of the plane. The problem with this apology? To Coloccia, “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.”
Not all airlines are created equal, however. When Southwest Airlines apologized to Mitch Robertson after he complained about an unpleasant flight, they not only credited him with 12,180 points (the value of his one-way ticket), but also sent a personal note communicating how “truly sorry” it was for the unpleasant trip. Robertson liked Southwest’s apology because “Southwest admitted that there were mistakes, didn’t make excuses and offered sincere and profound apologies.” Southwest restored trust, which is a key step to take after an apology as we have argued in the NYT.
The prevalence of apologies from airlines is a telling example of how the frequency with which apologies are doled out today is diluting the real meaning and opportunity that an apology provides. An apology offers a chance to reflect deeply on the causes that give rise to incidents that require apologizing for, as well as to rebuild trust and to heal a damaged relationship because of the events. In his call for an “apology cease-fire”, Dov Seidman explains that “‘sorry’ has become one of the easiest and most convenient — and therefore least meaningful — words there is,” and so we ought to refrain from simply uttering the word as a knee-jerk reaction. Instead, we should cherish the opportunity it provides us to get the apology right, which requires changing our behavior in lasting ways, and not to simply repeat what is becoming an empty tradition.
Have you received an apology recently that could have been done better? What about it felt dissatisfying, and how could it have been improved?