American Airlines: Passengers Are Happier When We Apologize For Screw-Ups Than When Things Go As Planned

Think about the all the flights you’ve taken in your life. Which ones are most memorable — The ones where you took off on time and landed as scheduled, or the ones where you slept at the gate while waiting 10 hours before having to make an unscheduled pit stop in Ireland for refueling? And according to an executive at American Airlines, customers are happier when a bad situation ends well than they are when things go as planned.

In a Chicago Tribune story about the professional apologizers hired by airlines like American and Southwest, the AA exec explains that a well-worded “my bad” (which probably includes some sort of voucher) has a remarkable effect on passengers:

We know how our customers score us on a routine flight, and we also know how they score us when we handle a delay situation very poorly or very well… When we handle a delay situation well, they score us about 14 to 16 points higher than they do for just a regular old on-time flight.

Southwest’s CEO also stresses the personal impact of reaching out to customers to apologize when things go poorly.

“How many of those (who received the apologies) are customers who came back and said, ‘You know, Southwest really treated me right in that one instance,'” he explains. “You just don’t know how those touch points are going to affect customers and what impact it might have on our future business with them.”

If an airline sends you an apology after a bad experience, how far does that go to regain your trust? And what’s more important — the sincerity of the apology or the size/value of any compensation (voucher, miles, etc.) that might be included?

Airlines employ professional apologizers [Chicago Tribune]


Edit Your Comment

  1. dragonfire81 says:

    When things go as planned I am satisfied. When an unexpected situation ends well, I am usually happy since so many companies just dick you around and are assholes when it comes to resolving problems with a reasonable solution. Anytime that DOESN’T happen, I am a very pleased and that’s a sad commentary on today’s service industry.

  2. dreamfish says:

    It’s more a case of how much you interact with a company. Normal day-to-day interaction, when things are going well, is likely to be brief and rather rigid as both sides are simply following a process. When there’s a screw-up, you spend a lot more time dealing with real people regarding a real issue that you have more personal involvement with. Consequently, if they perform well during that closer relationship, you notice it more and revise your views accordingly.

    • pecan 3.14159265 says:

      It’s also that not only do we want things to go as planned, they should go as planned. We’re not talking about weather delays or things we can’t control – we’re talking about mechanical issues, and proper maintenance checkups that aren’t being done. I think we’re so used to things not going as planned that when they do, we’re pleasantly surprised. When they go awry, we’re powerless to stop it, and we feel better when it’s acknowledged that someone screwed up. It’s the powerlessness to do anything about it that bothers us.

  3. V-effekt says:

    United massively messed up a flight of mine recently due to a computer error that bumped me out of my seat. It was a bit odd and nobody seemed to know what happened. (good thing I had a printout of my seat assignments and confirmation number with me)
    The people at the airport were not ‘authorized’ to fix the problem, which really stinks. I remember when gate agents and others at the airport had the power to compensate you or fix problems in the computer system. Now it takes a high up manager to do this. I was a bit peeved to say the least.
    5 days after the flight, however, I got a personal call and adequate compensation. That at least reassured me that they cared enough to solve their own problem and gave me some confidence in them. I don’t think that this is better than just not messing up in the first place, but it was refreshing to see a company fix a problem.
    US Air, oddly enough, impressed me more when two women went way out of their way to get myself, my wife, and my 3 kids on a tight connecting flight after we missed our connection due to a weather delay. They worked so hard for very little reason, made sure our bags made it, and we actually got on the flight and got home. They worked as a team to get 5 of us on the flight quickly. They told us, ” go to the gate, we will have you seated by the time you get there.” When I arrived at the gate, I was a bit hesitant and asked if they had boarding cards for us. She said, sorry, flight is full. I asked her to check and she said. :Wow, yes, you are ticketed.. let me print up your boarding cards.”
    That was much more impressive than someone fixing a problem that they caused.
    I wish I would have written down the names of the two women at the transfer desk in PHL. I am still impressed with their effort. Thanks whoever you were…

  4. YouDidWhatNow? says:

    Well, it’s kind of like what a coach said to me in high school – besides the whole “stop trying to drill a hole through the wall into the girls’ locker room” thing…

    Using basketball as an example, why celebrate when you make your shot? That’s what’s *supposed* to happen. It shouldn’t be a surprise…that was the intended outcome. If anything, be disappointed if you brick or airball. But there is little sense in making a big deal when something works out as expected.

  5. c!tizen says:

    Ahhh, a glimpse into the mind of airline executive. Exactly the type of twisted logic I’d expected.

    • runswithscissors says:

      The wonderful irony of it all is that these same executives NEVER fly commercial. They have private jets.

      If I ever end up an executive, I vow to eat my own company’s dogfood like my customers do. Incognito if possible. It’s the only way to know what it’s like.

  6. teke367 says:

    Its not just apologizing, but it’s making it right. Sometimes, when its a situation outside the airlines control (like weather) an apology is fine, but the worst experience I had was on USAir, basically they scheduled one more flight than they had enough pilots for, so we couldn’t fly out. If they told us then, and apologized, it would have been fine. But they kept “delaying” our flight for hours, saying, “we have a pilot on their way” when they didn’t. It was 5 or 6 hours later when they finally fessed up, too late for us to change flights. Complete incompetence like that doesn’t get patched over with an apology, or a free soft pretzel (which is what they offered us).

  7. Etoiles says:

    Isn’t this the entire essence of good customer service? Only a very unreasonable person expects things to go perfectly all the time; it’s in how a company handles the screw-ups that their service rep is made or broken.

    One of the things I love about JetBlue. (I fly at least a few times a year and they’re my first airline of choice.) In the past, when things have gone wrong, they’ve sent me apologies and vouchers that arrived home before *I* did, and in person their customer-facing employees have almost always been communicative. (There were a few exceptions.) So yeah, I trust that. Pretending nothing ever goes wrong is dumb.

    (A more likely example of same: a local diner we frequent royally screwed up one Saturday, left us hanging 45 minutes, and then brought the wrong food. Before I could even formulate the words, “May I see the manager?” he had magically appeared at our table, comping that day’s meal and with vouchers in hand for freebies next time. Quick apology + compensation = we still go there a couple of times a month.)

  8. Jacquilynne says:

    The size of the voucher is the sincerity of the apology.

  9. WayneB says:

    So does this mean they’re going to make it standard policy to always intentionally screw up and then apologize so they can get one of those useless J.D. Powers customer satisfaction awards? You probably won’t notice when this policy goes into effect because the accidental screw-up rate is already approaching “always”.

  10. twritersf says:

    What these clueless executives fail to realize is that actual competence is so rare in the industry now, and air travel so traumatic, intrusive, and costly (with its dishonest add-on fee after add-on fee), an actual flight that has no incident or issue is the exception, rather than the rule, and travelers are extremely relieved when this outlier situation occurs. But rather than express their gratitude and relief and satisfaction, those travelers simply wish to escape the airport and airline experience as quickly as possible before something untoward does happen.

    • JMILLER says:

      Really? would you like to offer some proof of your “theory”? The airlines are not to blame for many of the problems related to airline travel. Of course using terms like most, or all is really useless without facts. Take a look at on-time % in the industry and tell me MOST are failures. I fly 3-4 times per month, and the vast majority go without a notice. The ones that do get noticed are more often than not, a result of something out of the airlines control. When it is the airlines fault, I have always had a good resolution by remaining calm, and not being an obnoxious asshole. The obnoxious assholes with the built in attitude that you already have based on your post, get nothing because you think you are entitled to something.

  11. smo0 says:

    When unexpected things happen that cause delays or whatever – and it’s resolved and followed by an apology, shows more about the company in question. It’s timing.. while people were waiting – if you polled them then, they’d probably score lower than the people who were arriving at their destination, on time, with no interruptions.
    After the fact, it’s a different story – different mood…
    I don’t even think it’s an issue… personally, the airline horror stories come from their consistant F-ups… people know crap happens, but when it’s apparent it’s something well within the control of the airline.. i.e. overbooking or random fees.. resolution or not people are still going to be unhappier than the people who had a normal-zero impact flight.

  12. humphrmi says:

    I fly a lot, and I’m a loyal AA passenger. Here’s why:

    1. They fly everywhere. I don’t need to find different airlines to fly to Colorado Springs vs. Zurich.
    2. 99% of the time, it goes as planned, without a problem.

    True, there are a few other airlines that “fly everywhere”, and the reason I don’t fly with them is because of the 1% of the time that things don’t go as planned, AA has made up for it.

    Now let’s see what happens the other way. Years ago, I was a loyal United customer; easily flew 100,000 miles a year with them. Then, one time, they screwed up, and they *didn’t* make it right. It doesn’t matter what the story was, it was probably 20 years ago. But, after that experience, the next time I flew, I checked the prices of other major carriers and found that AA was lower priced, so I tried them. The rest, as they say, is history.

    I’m not going to shill for AA, they don’t shine in the service department like Emirates or Cathay Pacific, but again I can’t fly Emirates from Chicago to Detroit. And they don’t suck so terribly that I want to go back to United. I guess that’s saying something.

    • gamehendge2000 says:

      Another spin on this from an AA EXP (100,000+ per year)…

      I fly a crapload as well. Primarily all on AA. In several years, I cannot think of a single incident that required an ‘apology’ to me. You would think that with the number of flights I’ve had, compared to the average airline passenger, the odds would be that I would have more of these apology-worthy incidents. But not a single one.

      So, either AA treats me amazingly well (which they do, I will admit), or perhaps as someone who travels quite a bit, I have an understanding of the mechanics of the passenger side of the operation. IMO, 95% of these apology scenarios are things passengers bring upon themselves (i.e. not understanding CoC), or demanding absolute bare-bones fares, and then get upset at a la carte pricing for additional services.

      • dcaslin says:

        As someone who flies all the time, I flew AA once for a trip to Costa Rica. As a loyal Southwest customer, I have no special AA standing. AA delayed us overnight both ways costing us 20% of our vacation, and stiffed us both nights for hotels (in Costa Rica, gave 2 couples a single hotel voucher and lied saying the hotel would give us 2 rooms; in Miami sent about 300 passengers to a single hotel which had about 50 vacancies, said “Sorry we’re closed” when ppl called and asked what to do after the shuttle left them stranded at a booked hotel). We never received an apology or even decent explanation from a single employee we dealt with. The next morning we even saw a former passenger threaten to assault a surly AA baggage checker, the checker just laughed and said “You think you’re the first customer that wants to hit me?” and walked away.

        It was amazing to watch the transformations of the employees from surly to fawning as they moved between first class and coach and as they moved between elite members and normal. Perhaps AA is changing their ways, but I’ll assume they’re just better at lying until I see otherwise (which admittedly probably won’t happen, since I’ll never, ever fly them again).

        • ninjatoddler says:

          I’ve personally seen too many screw ups with only email apologies from AA. Flew out to NYC and Boston a couple times this year and I skipped AA. If they can’t treat customers right, don’t expect customers to be opening up their wallets to them.

  13. El_Fez says:

    You know, I don’t need compensation – if they honestly, legitimately go “Geeze, we fucked up royally” and then put it right, that’s all I need.

  14. nsv says:

    I think most people understand that everything isn’t going to be perfect 100% of the time. The question is not “What went wrong?” but “What did you do to make it right?”

    Haven’t had any problems with American Airlines, but as far as I can tell, United’s policy is “Cover our ass and make the customer miserable.” I don’t fly United anymore.

  15. katarzyna says:

    I’d like to see the difference in responses when it’s not the airline’s fault (e.g. weather), when it is their fault (e.g. overbooking), and when it’s partially their fault (e.g. mechanical issues). I’d be a lot happier if they bent over backwards for me to fix a problem caused by weather than if they fixed a problem they caused in the first place.

  16. DJSeanMac says:

    This is common knowledge for every industry. People expect a level of service; provide it and the transaction is routine. If a difficulty is encountered, it becomes more involved, where meeting or exceeding the revised expectation becomes customer delight. It’s just common sense.

  17. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    It’s called being relieved. Or tipping more when the waiter goes above and beyond.

    Sure, we’re really appreciative when an airline makes amends on a screw-up that isn’t their fault.

    But, when it is their fault we grudgingly accept their “making it right.”

  18. jimmyhl says:

    This is all a bit……..ironic. A lot of times (not always, but often), an airline is really and truly responsible for causing a passenger’s problem in the first place. Yet somehow the airline becomes a hero when it apologizes and throws the passenger a bone, such as voucher that allows the passenger to fly again on the same carrier that screwed up the last flight. I’m all for good service when there’s a problem but I’d just as soon as do without the problem in the first place. This apology program seems to have its psychological roots in the Stockholm Syndrome.

  19. dulcinea47 says:

    This is just like the information that has come out that says people are less likely to sue when their doctor screws up if the doctor actually apologizes.

    Funny how it seems to work- if people are not jerks, we’re willing to accept the fact that problems/mistakes happen.

  20. Ladybird says:

    Could it be because the basic expectation an airline customer has is that they will have a seat, the plane will leave on time (barring weather conditions), the flight attendants will reign in the surliness, and the pilot won’t kill them all?

    I mean that’s what people are PAYING for, basic expectations. When the airline fails to meet that basic expectation then the airline needs to compensate appropriately.

    Can I be an airline exec now?

  21. trey says:

    Definition of MEMORABLE

    : worth remembering : notable

    does a 10 hour delay qualify under the definition of memorable? i think not.

    also… if airlines keep screwing up in the same ways then no amount of apologizing will compensate for that. and an apology for screwing me out of 35 dollars for a checked bag (before you jump, not southwest) would be nice.

  22. calchip says:

    Actually in Jan Carlzon’s book “Moments of Truth” which was both about airlines AND customer service (one of the original “bibles” on extraordinary service) Carlzon, who was then head of SAS airlines, found that the customer’s perception of the company did actually improve if there was a problem which was quickly and brilliantly resolved vs. no problems at all.

    Tom Peters, in his “A Passion for Excellence” demonstrated the same thing on a larger scale.

    I suspect that as other posters here have said, in today’s world, service has gotten so crappy that the effect is likely somewhat magnified; any sort of “we care” message is becoming so uncommon that it stands out. Pretty sad, but that’s the way things are.

  23. axiomatic says:

    Exactly wrong.

    But also exactly the answer I expect from a CEO.

    • SuperSnackTime says:

      Yeah, that dumb CEO and his foolish “reporting an answer based on hard research.” What a dumbass for saying such a foolish thing… next time he should just make up imaginary answers not supported by the data.

  24. Cyniconvention says:

    A by-the-books flight isn’t a great deal of fun…but I don’t fly often, so I imagine it probably is a relief to see that companies don’t dick you out.

  25. Bob says:

    An “I’m sorry” without attempt at resolution is completely worthless, but some companies say it anyway as if that will increase their review score or something. Since most companies refuse to enable their employees to do anything to resolve problems their customer facing departments can’t be bothered with a true apology

  26. dumblonde says:

    So are they saying they screw up to make people happy? That’s like saying you beat on your wife then apologize and give her flowers and she’s happier than ever.
    Well I will not be a battered flyer. I like uneventful flights that take off on time and get where I want on time. My “memorable” flights have been when I get unexpected upgrades or sit next to someone interesting but tarmac delays, being exhausted, hot/cold and unwashed do not count as memorable.

  27. haggis for the soul says:

    Oh, no. We’re encouraging them to be incompetent.

  28. Bob Lu says:

    It depends on how you define “a bad situation ends well”.

    Once I got 5000 bonus miles for defective in-flight entertaining system. I think that was pretty nice.

  29. packcamera says:

    Last year, returning from San Jose, Costa Rica, strong wind conditions prevented our plane from taking off in the intended direction. So the airport made us take off on one of the landing runways, which required a very steep climb over mountains following take-off. So to lighten the load, Delta emptied the plane off all of its stowed cargo and food, leaving only one solitary dog who’s barking was now echoing throughout the belly of the plane. I stifled a smile as I only had carry-on bags, but the two sweaty and hefty sport-fishermen/prostitute patrons (it is legal in Costa Rica) who’s girth was pressing me against the window, were flipping out because they packed their house keys in their luggage. We finally took off four hours late; I just made my connecting flight back to NYC and was given a $300 voucher from Delta for my non-existent luggage troubles (not the delayed flight). I accepted it since I lost 2/5ths of my seat to Bocephus’ and Beauregard’s blubber. So despite the detour from the scheduled plans, I was, and still am, happy with the outcome.

  30. HogwartsProfessor says:

    Why yes, airlines, good customer service helps you retain and satisfy customers.


  31. Sydney2PR says:

    A good apology should make the customer feel that their situation is understood and that there is some empathy towards their plight.

    However, in saying that, shouldn’t the airline focus on ensuring that they have a consistent high service, with minimal complaints, to retain customers rather than relying on apologies?

  32. Mr.Grieves says:

    Go figure, people seem to enjoy being treated more like people and a little less like they’re just cattle.

  33. KyBash says:

    This is not surprising. Good service is invisible. The only time you notice is when something goes wrong, and then you judge them by how they handle the problem.

    “How was your flight?”
    “Terrible, I was worried about the Farnsworth contract and spent the whole time wishing I could do a video conference with our sales manager and their receiving department.”

    “How was your flight?”
    “Great. They lost my seat reservation but made up for it by upgrading me and giving me a $20 voucher, so I made out like a bandit.”

  34. MrEvil says:

    Y’know, I am less incensed by such things when I hear an apology from the service provider. I recently flew from Austin to Amarillo on Southwest Airlines. I specifically picked a flight that did not require a plane change in Dallas (Through passengers just stay put while waiting for Love Boarders) Unfortunately when we arrived at Love Field the aircraft we were on appeared to have reached its mandatory maintenance interval. So we then had to deplane, which wouldn’t have been a huge issue for me since we’d get first dibs on seats on the new aircraft. However, in another unforseen event the NEW plane was running extremely late. The whole time though the folks at Southwest were very friendly and they apologized that they had screwed up. Plus it doesn’t hurt that the flight attendants are allowed to be humorous during their announcements.

  35. energynotsaved says:

    Ask me tomorrow. Three of us are booked on a full flight, which we paid huge sums of money, in order to get to a funeral. Only one of us has a seat.. If the other two get bumped, I’m not sure when/if we will be able to get to the destination as all other options are also full.

    I was recently on another flight where there were engine problems and 6 hours of delays. Received a $6 food voucher. You can’t get food in an airport for $6. Later, received a letter where we were also given 2500 miles for our trouble. Frankly, I would have rather had a $10 food voucher, or better yet, $10 to pay for the extra parking costs I incurred by not getting back until the new day had officially began! Oh well. When you live in Atlanta, you live in Delta slavery.

  36. invisibelle says:

    Same story ran in the Dallas Morning News last week… I’m really curious about the “internal surveys” AA cited.

  37. ninjatoddler says:

    American Airlines has a bot with terrible grammar called “Roberto Silva” who is neither male nor female and comes with a different writing style every time you email them for complaints. I’ve also never received any gift vouchers for getting bumped off their flights or the time when an attendant had food spill on me.

  38. pyrobryan says:

    How many times can you screw someone, apologize, and expect them to be happy about it? And let me guess, on the survey when you ask someone how well the situation was handled when the airline screwed up, “very well” is worth about 30 points and “does not apply” is worth 0 points.