Airlines embrace the art of apology

The Baltimore Sun

DALLAS -- Airlines are getting serious about saying they're sorry.

After a spate of nightmarish service disruptions, American Airlines, JetBlue Airways and others are sending out more apologies, hoping to head off customer complaints and quell talk of new consumer-protection regulations from Congress.

But no airline accepts blame quite like Southwest Airlines, which employs Fred Taylor Jr. in a job that could be called chief apology officer.

His formal title is senior manager of proactive customer communications. But Taylor - 37, rail thin and mildly compulsive, by his own admission - spends his 12-hour work days finding out how Southwest disappointed its customers and then firing off homespun letters of apology.

"Erring on the side of caution, our captain decided to return to Phoenix rather than second-guess the smell that was in the cabin," Taylor wrote to passengers who were on a March 7 flight to Albuquerque. A faulty valve was to blame. "Not toxic, it was obviously annoying," he assured them, throwing in a free voucher for travel to clear the air.

He composes about 180 letters a year explaining what went wrong on particular flights and, with about 110 passengers per flight, he mails off roughly 20,000 mea culpas. Each one lists the number for his direct phone line.

This year, he has exceeded that total because Southwest sent written apologies to 22,000 passengers who passed through a choked Las Vegas airport Feb. 19 and 20. (That letter listed a general customer service number.)

Such fiascoes are rare. But even on good days, big airlines have plenty to be sorry about: a mix of broken planes, sick passengers and scary landings.

Now, rather than rely entirely on weary frontline workers, many airlines are institutionalizing the apology. American said its apology letters were running twice the level of a year ago. JetBlue now e-mails an apology within 36 hours of certain service failures. And Continental Airlines and US Airways say they are sending many more apology letters.

Airlines will probably not be apologizing much for the more than 2,500 canceled flights on Friday because of bad weather in and around New York. They mostly notified customers of the storm early enough in an attempt to avoid stranding people.

Taylor, of Southwest, also writes an internal daily report, used by others at the airline to explain service failings. It is leavened with a comic touch.

Recapping a troubled flight from Las Vegas to San Jose last April 18, for instance, he explained that the plane had circled back after takeoff because the landing gear would not retract. And there was more.

"During the return, a customer became ill and apparently 'decorated' three rows of seats - and perhaps a few customers," he wrote. "No word on how Linda Blair is doing."

The airline industry has more to apologize for these days. Delays and lost baggage have been rising. Planes are more crowded. And airline workers, many suffering two rounds of pay and benefit cuts in recent years, sometimes have little sympathy left for customers.

Intense news coverage of the industry, meanwhile, means national attention when planeloads of passengers are stranded for hours on a tarmac.

Apologizing is not particularly costly for airlines. It is handled by large customer service groups that the airlines maintain. Most airlines include flight vouchers, such as $50 or as much as two round-trip tickets, along with apologies for longer delays and other avoidable mishaps.

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