Delta Air Lines…Did We Not Learn Anything From The United Debacle?

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As an Atlanta resident, I LOVE Delta Airlines. As a corporate trainer however, I cringe at some of their recent leadership missteps. Several weeks ago, they received tons of negative press over a nightmarish spring break travel season fraught with extensive customer delays, thousands of flight cancellations and arguably poor management decisions. As a corporate trainer who advises leaders and teams on a wide range of issues and also one of those unlucky Delta spring break passengers, I felt moved to write an article “I’m Sorry….the Two Tragically Forgotten Words in Customer Service”. The article essentially asserts that to avoid apologizing when a company has clearly dropped the ball, only makes the situation worse. Unfortunately, the article seemed to foreshadow even darker days for the airline industry.

Just a few days later, I watched in horror as the United Airlines video surfaced showing a seemingly harmless paying customer being dragged off a flight in order to make room for United flight crew in accordance with their (controversial at best) “policy”. Instead of issuing an immediate apology, top executives’ initial statements seemed to blame the customer and show complete support for United crew who were simply “following policy” according to executives. Hearing the executives’ misguided, defensive response, I tweeted out my article with #United Airlines….”United Executives, please read…” because I felt it was so relevant to their current situation. Arguably, the worldwide media firestorm about the United debacle diverted the attention from Delta’s missteps. My prayer was that Delta would take advantage of the “reprieve” and take copious notes on what not to do as they watched the United drama unfold. Boy, was I wrong!

This morning, my jaw dropped to the floor as I watched video of what appeared to be a typical easy going Delta customer being kicked off a plane – not because he made terroristic threats, not because he was violent or belligerent with another passenger or crew member, not because he was intoxicated and causing a disturbance….no, because he decided that he couldn’t hold it anymore during the tarmac delay and decided to quickly run to the restroom (even though he’d asked permission 30 minutes earlier and been denied). Their justification for turning the plane around and forcing everyone to disembark? He did not comply with crew instructions. In ABC News’ recount of the incident, fellow passenger attorney Krista Rosolino (who recorded the video) described the incident as “the most outrageous treatment of a paying customer I’ve ever seen.” She further described her outrage in an open letter to Delta Airlines.

As a huge believer in learning from other’s mistakes, I’d like to share three key principles Delta should have learned from the United fiasco:

Apply the Common Sense Filter to All Policies

It’s amazing to me that these executives in their formal responses cling to their own internal policies absolutely seemingly with little focus on critical analysis of the specific situation. Just as I’m sure virtually everyone would agree that policies are absolutely necessary and expecting passengers to follow crew member instructions is completely reasonable (if not necessary), but virtually any policy must be considered in context (and there are almost always exceptions). In this situation, I can’t help but ask what ifs…..What if a young pregnant woman had asked to use the restroom? What if an elderly person with a medical condition or a young child needed to use the restroom? It’s hard to imagine that those situations would not have (and should not have) played out differently. Certainly there have also been rare instances of crew members being impaired or otherwise making very poor choices (e.g. the American Airlines crew member who just days ago reportedly became quite aggressive with a mother holding a baby). Assuming crew aren’t perfect, there’s always the possibility that they could give an instruction that could jeopardize safety – should those be blindly adhered to as well? Blind allegiance to policy at the expense of basic common sense is a recipe for disaster.

Don’t Overreact in a Conflict Situation

The United example seems to provide a lesson on the dangers of overreacting in a conflict situation. Instead of deescalating when possible, it seemed that the focus was escalation if not domination and clearly the situation spiraled out of control. The lesson here – accept that there will be policy violations – expect them as a part of doing business and seek the path of de-escalation whenever possible.

Always Consider the Worst Case Scenario

One technique for avoiding the temptation to overreact is to first think through the worst case result (e.g. the recent United Airlines disaster where the customer was dragged down the aisle). I can’t imagine the backlash that Delta will receive having a video circulating that recounts them not just humiliating this one passenger but also choosing to seriously inconvenience the entire plane full of passengers unnecessarily by making everyone disembark and reboard so they could flex their authority and “force him off the plane”. I just can’t understand how they didn’t weigh the public relations risk either at the flight attendant level (making the initial decision), managerial level (deciding to turn the plane around) or the executive level (issuing a statement blindly citing policy with no apology in sight).

Like any other major corporation, Delta can’t control all its employees actions, but their doubling down on this ridiculous series of decisions makes them appear tone deaf at best (and that’s generous). I can’t help but think that if SNL does a skit showing crew members passing out Depend undergarments as they board, they only have themselves to blame.

For more customer service tips and best practices, read Professionalism Matters’ Customer Service Report.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at Connect with her on Linked In @ and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.

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