Filling in the Blanks

If you learn anything in public relations, it’s that when you leave a communication vacuum, people fill it with their own information. And the information they are left to fill in is not often flattering. So, you would think the big airlines could apply that lesson to their customer service. Apparently not.

Edgar Barany / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

I had settled in on my Delta flight back from New Orleans, connecting in Atlanta en route to Newark. Just before take off, the pilot tells us that because there was significant turbulence when the plan arrived at Louis Armstrong Airport, they needed to do a physical inspection. In just a few minutes we’d be on our way.

A few minutes later, he breaks the bad news. A mechanic has to perform the inspection and they do not have anyone in the Big Easy to do the job. They are flying in someone from Atlanta or Minneapolis to do the job, and it will be “a few hours.”

Once we begin to consider the implication of an airline not having a mechanic at an airport to do an inspection, we deplane en masse and head to the Sky Club, bar, ticket counter or wait at the gate to rebook our connections.

Fast forward to “a few hours” later and they announce we will be boarding at 1:55 p.m. At 1:55, a flight attendant strolls out of the gate, so I inquire. He sheepishly tells me they have been told nothing by Delta but their schedule says 4 p.m. I share my new information with my new airport friends and lead a line at the counter to rebook my rebooked connection.

My airport friends and I tried to laugh, but for those sitting and waiting with no information, it was anger, disgust and murmurs of “Delta sucks.” All the $25 food vouchers and apologies by the faultless flight crew could not help.

Delta left their worried, anxious customers in the dark for over an hour. Their crew and airport staff lacked both the information and authority to advise and mitigate the fallout among angry passengers. A few communications basics could have helped:

  • Know your audience is tired, worried and anxious, so communicate frequently.
  • Be forthright (we wouldn’t board at 1:55) and honest as circumstances developed (we might be leaving as late as 4 p.m., but hopefully sooner)
  • Acknowledge what we experienced (inconvenience, frustration) so we knew they cared.

People understand mistakes, but when left in the dark they fill in the blanks – and it’s not an image an airline or anyone else wants.

C’mon Delta, you have the resources to do better.

Photo credit: Edgar Barany / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

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