In the Midst of Hundreds of Canceled Flights, Delta Air Lines Did Something Completely Unexpected. It’s What Every Company Should Do


Travel has been making something of a comeback lately. As the pandemic has ebbed, and as people have begun to return to whatever “normal life” looks like, at this point, a lot of them are more willing to get on an airplane than at any point over the last two years.

Of course, anytime you run a business as complex as an airline,  things are going to go wrong. There are–literally–thousands of moving parts. Sometimes things break. Sometimes pilots get sick. Sometimes it rains in New York City, which somehow prevents all airplanes basically everywhere from getting where they’re supposed to be.

All of those things cause delays. Sometimes the delays are bad enough that they become cancellations. 

If your job is running a massive network that involves packing hundreds of people onto flying metal tubes and ferrying them from one place to another, canceling a large number of those flights is one of the biggest challenges you have to deal with.

That’s basically what happened over Memorial Day weekend. Thousands of flights were canceled during what was the busiest travel period in the last few years. Those cancelations continued as airlines try to match their capacity to the surge in demand. 

Flight cancellations, as unfortunate as they are, are a part of running an airline. Things are going to go wrong. What matters is how you respond when they do.

I traveled earlier this month and got to experience a canceled flight firsthand. Thankfully, I was able to change my itinerary and still get home. The difference was, instead of a direct, 80-minute flight, I now had two flights, two hours each, with a three-hour connection in the middle.

Still, it wasn’t the end of the world. I would describe it as a “moderate inconvenience.” That’s why what happened next was so unexpected. After my flight, I received the following email from Delta with the subject “Our Sincerest Apologies:” 

We apologize again for the disruption to your travel, as providing reliable, best-in-class customer service is always important to us. As part of our apology for the situation, we are depositing 10,000 miles into each member of your travel party’s SkyMiles account, which should be posted within the next five business days. Thank you for your loyalty, and we hope to see you again soon.

There are three things that stand out about this email. The first is that it was an apology. If you mess up, even when it’s not your fault, take responsibility. After all, just because something isn’t your fault, it is your problem when it affects the experience your customers have with your business. An apology goes a long way.

The second is that Delta tried to make it right. I really have no idea what the appropriate compensation is for having a flight canceled and trying to figure out an alternative that still gets you where you need to be. I guess, in this case, since I was able to make it home within a few hours of the original time, it’s 10,000 miles.

Of course, the point isn’t that Delta decided to drop some miles into people’s SkyMiles accounts. This brings us to the most important piece, which is that Delta didn’t send this email in response to a complaint. Delta didn’t wait for me to complain at all.

Truth be told, I wouldn’t have ever complained. It was inconvenient, but I also know that delays and cancellations are a part of travel. For someone who has flown some 30 times already this year, I just count myself lucky this is the first flight I’ve had canceled in a long time.

That’s the point, really: if you want to take care of your customers, don’t wait for them to complain. If you know you messed up, don’t wait for them to point it out before you make it right. Whatever you think it would take to make them happy if they did complain, just do that thing. 

Sure, that’s more expensive. If you wait for customers to complain, very few of them will, and you’ll only have to take care of the ones that do. 

Look, I’m sure that plenty of people were really upset about missing their flights. A lot of them will never complain or let Delta know. It would be a mistake to assume they aren’t upset just because they don’t send a nasty email. If you mess up, apologize and make it right. Whether your customers complain or not. 

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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