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Should Airlines Apologize When They’re Late? No, And You’re Probably Making the Same Mistake.

By November 17, 2019No Comments

(This post originally appeared on Inc.)

Earlier this week I was traveling from Philly to Chicago on an American Airlines flight. We were supposed to arrive at 10:30 in the morning. We wound up arriving at 4:30 in the afternoon. Why the big delay? That was the day that Chicago was hit by about six inches of snow. O’Hare had to close multiple times for cleaning. Oh, and an airliner skidded off the runway.

Yet still, as we boarded the plane (for the second time) that afternoon both the head flight attendant and the pilot apologized for the delay.

This happens a lot when I travel. Airlines are always very quick to apologize for anything that delays a flight. American Airlines can’t control the weather. They don’t plow the runways at O’Hare. They can’t predict every time there’s a maintenance issue. They’re not in a position to argue with an airport’s flight control. Last year on a flight to London a passenger fell ill and we were forced to land in Canada so that she could receive emergency care (she was OK). The captain apologized for that too!

Of course you’ll say that airlines have plenty of things to apologize for, such as the cramped seating, tight schedules, over-bookings and all the nickel-and-diming and I’m not going to argue with that.

But have you ever considered all the things that must happen just for a flight to depart on time? The incoming plane has to be there. A crew has to be there. The toilets have to work. The engine has to pass all its tests. The airport needs to be running efficiently. The weather needs to be good. All passengers need to behave. The safety checks must succeed. One flight I was on was delayed an hour because a flight attendant’s seat belt wasn’t working. A seat belt!  It’s a miracle that any plane gets into the sky, yet alone arriving safely and mostly on time at its destination.  We should be grateful to the people working at these airlines. They do not need to make apologies.

As business leaders, should we all be apologizing so much? I’m sure there are plenty of studies that say that apologizing is the best way to calm down an irate customer and that people will react better when they’re being treated as if they’re in the right. But isn’t apologizing basically saying we’re at fault? If your business is genuinely to blame for a problem, then by all means step up and take responsibility. But it irks me when the crew on my flight apologizes for things that have nothing to do with them.

I refuse to apologize.

I make it a point in my business not to say “sorry” when things go wrong, unless we are genuinely at fault. I can be “disappointed” or “frustrated” or “concerned.” I can share empathy, annoyance and even anger when things don’t go right. But – like the airlines – we’re all just doing the best we can and in many cases, factors outside of our control cause things to go off-course. I’m not going to apologize when that happens because it exposes my business to potential demands for refunds, claims, even lawsuits.

Maybe the airlines have deep enough pockets to cover all of this. But most businesses don’t. So take ownership and apologize when it’s your fault. Otherwise, empathize. Fix. Move on.

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