Delta's Facing PR Challenges

It’s open season on Delta’s handling of the PR crises following its cancellation of more flights this morning on top of more than 1,800 yesterday and Monday after a computer problem in Atlanta stranded passengers around the world.  

Consider the four-word lede on the AP’s Scott Mayerowitz’ story: “We don’t cancel flights.” The next graf takes down that bit of hubris quicker than a glitch in a power control module can make a finely tuned system go kaflooey.

“That’s been the message for the past two years from Delta Air Lines,” he writes. “Double-decker buses roamed the streets of New York, wrapped in ads proclaiming ‘canceling cancellations.’ Delta executives boasted about the number of days without a single flight scrapped.”



Mayerowitz posits that the cancellations and delays, coupled with its own delay in explaining what really happened, “threatens to wipe away all that trust that Delta has worked to build” and has allowed it to proudly get 110 cents for every dollar charged by its competitors. That’s tempered, however, by S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Jim Corridore telling him the airline might “get a pass” if the incident proves isolated.

Then let’s take a look at the growing flak over it’s apparently not-so-magnanimous offer of a $200 voucher to anyone whose flight was cancelled or delayed for more than two hours.

“Travel experts said many should reject the offer because they are entitled to more than three times that amount,” writes Alastair Jamieson for “European regulation EC261 means passengers can claim 300 euros ($335) if their arrival at the final destination was delayed by between three and four hours. They can seek double that amount if the delay was longer than four hours or their flight was canceled — and can also submit receipts for the cost of a hotel and meals if the airline didn't provide those.”

Thousands trying to reach the U.S. from cities such as London, Paris, Dublin, Madrid and Amsterdam were impacted, Jamieson reports.

Delta also offered a refund, or “one-time” no-fee change to the ticket to passengers whose flights were cancelled or delayed. But don’t sit on it. The ticket must be reissued — and travel must begin — no later than Aug. 21.

And how do you deal with isolated stories like this lede on a story Tuesday by Jonathan Lloyd and Toni Guinyard for CNBC in Los Angeles: “Todd and MoRaya Ferryman had hoped to be in Costa Rica Monday night celebrating their honeymoon at a five-star resort.”

Yup. They spent it at LAX, where they’d been since Sunday night. And there’s video to go with it, of course. “I'm wearing the same thing that I've been wearing,” Ferryman tells Guinyard. “The only difference is I'm not as polite as I have been.” And they had to spend $250 on food at Terminal 5 instead of eating at the five-star resort that they’d scrimped and saved to book.

Then there’s the errant finger pointing. Delta at first blamed a power outage but Georgia Pacific said they would be the only customer who experienced it if that were the case. Turns out, Delta admitted in a statement yesterday, that a “power control module” at the airline’s technology center malfunctioned early Monday morning, “causing a surge to the transformer and a loss of power,” reports Susan Carey for MarketWatch.

Delta’s communications team has been under fire since the start of the crises. A PR Week hed Monday afternoon said: “Delta lacks personal touch in early outage response” based on an interview with Ashley McCown, president of Solomon McCown & Company, a firm that specializes in crisis communications. It was instead “relying on its corporate newsroom and social media accounts to disseminate information to customers and the press,” as Sean Czarnecki’s lede informed us.

Fitch, the credit rating company, saw fit to issue a release over Business Wire stating that the outage was not expected to affect the BBB- rating that it had upgraded Delta to in May. But, Fitch pointed out, outages “can generate a material amount of negative press and ill will with passengers. More serious IT problems can have longer term effects, as illustrated by United's outages experienced in 2012 and its effects on customer loyalty.”

CEO Ed Bastian’s relatively quick video apology to passengers Monday from the airlines operations and customer center was generally met with favorable reviews (even if he seems to spend as much time applauding the “all hands on deck” response of Delta's team to the disruption as he does empathizing with the passengers). That was followed by a “this isn’t who we are update” yesterday that seemed more contrite: “We’re very sorry, I’m personally very sorry, for what has happened to you …,” he says up front, ending with a “sorry that we let you down.”

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