U.S. Airlines Face Steep Marketing Challenge After Epic Nightmare Summer

Skift Take

You don't wan't airlines to apologize. You want airlines to get better. There's the starting point in how to message to your customers going forward.

More than a decade ago, Domino’s Pizza realized it had a problem: Its customers thought its products were disgusting. Rather than ignoring it, the company’s new CEO went on an apology tour that became the catalyst for a major turnaround. “There comes a time when you know you have to make a change,” he said in one commercial, promising Domino’s would no longer sell lukewarm pizzas that tasted like cardboard.

This summer, U.S. airlines have failed more customers than a company serving stale crusts and ketchupy tomato sauce. By scheduling more flights than the system could handle, airlines ruined family reunions, business trips, birthdays, and other gatherings. Airlines didn’t err on purpose. But most consumers don’t understand or don’t care. Many have written social media comments nastier than what people wrote about pizzas years ago. Some airlines have issued lukewarm apologies or explanations, but they haven’t seemed to move public opinion. People remain mad, even though on-time performance has improved and fares are beginning to fall.

“The consumer is paying a higher price for a worse product,” said Fred Cook, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and former chairman and CEO of Golin, a public relations firm. “That is not going to lead anywhere good. If you are not able to provide the level of service you used to, and you are charging twice as much for it, it makes the thing less satisfying for a consumer. If you’re paying double for a ticket, and you are getting a glass of water and a little biscuit, it is not very gratifying.”

Given these circumstances, should airlines copy what worked so well for Domino’s and offer genuine apologies?

This answer is probably not, several branding and marketing experts tell Skift. Customers may think they want airlines to say, “sorry.” But experts say brands shy away from apologies except in rare circumstances, usually when only one company is at fault and that firm can demonstrate it has fixed the problem.

Domino’s met both criteria. But since every airline has had operational issues and none has systematically solved them, experts say this likely is not an appropriate time for such a campaign.

“The thing with apologies is, you have to mean it,” said Jamie Perry, a partner at Material who advises airlines and other companies on marketing strategy. “If you are not going to go all the way to fix the problem, you are probably better off not saying anything, rather than saying something that comes across as hollow.”

It’s not even clear the public would believe it.

Has There Been a Fix?

Perry said he likes clients to understand a marital analogy. Typically, he said, after a fight with a partner, a spouse doesn’t just want to hear, “I’m sorry.” The aggrieved party not only wants a sign of contrition, but also seeks a concrete sign the issue will not repeat.

“Your other half is absolutely livid over something you have said or done,” said Perry, former vice president for marketing at JetBlue Airways. “You say you’re sorry. That’s not going to calm them down, is it? They want to see a genuine and meaningful act of contrition.”

Or, to put into the airline context, “you don’t want to hear the airline is sorry,” Perry said. “You want the airline to take you to Dallas, dammit.”

No doubt, more flights to Dallas, and everywhere else, are on time now than earlier this summer. But while most carriers improved performance in July and August, they achieved it by cutting flights, not by investing in sustainable operating practices. Airlines continue to struggle with staffing problems, air traffic control issues, and constrained airports, and they’re still not offering pre-pandemic levels of reliability and service.

When demand spikes next, perhaps at Thanksgiving, they may falter. As in summer, airlines will have two choices. They can cull flights, depressing revenue and spurring higher ticket prices. Or they could let it ride, hoping to avoid operational calamity. With good weather and a reasonable number of employee sick calls, they may pull it off. But if there’s a major snowstorm in a hub, plus a spike in Covid cases, they will not.

If airlines apologize now and struggle in November, public ire could increase, said Tom O’Toole, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and former chief marketing officer at United Airlines.

“If you haven’t fixed the underlying cause of the problem and just tell people you are sorry and then it happens again, all you have done is make people cynical and reduce your credibility,” O’Toole said.

Before the apologies, airlines should consider making real changes to their operations, said Marvin Singleton, U.S. head of mobility and transportation at public relations firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies and an advisor to All Nippon Airways. That will probably take more than cancelling flights to build slack.

“Rebuilding an airline brand’s reputation isn’t a short-term solution and has to start with airlines getting their operations in order,” he said. “Much like every airline promoted their efforts to reassure their aircraft were clean and hygienic to fly after the first wave of Covid, airlines should now focus on reliability.”

True apologies have worked for mechanical issues, when it is easier to show the problem is fixed. Rob Friedman, a consultant and former vice president of marketing for American Airlines, recalled how American apologized in 2008, after federal authorities required it to ground roughly 300 MD80s for extra inspections over a four-day period. American canceled more than 3,000 flights and later faced a major fine from the Federal Aviation Administration for failing to proactively inspect wiring in wheel wells.

In its apology, American included a complex explanation about how it had erred.

“It was very much, ‘We are sorry,”‘ Friedman said.

Is Only Your Brand at Fault?

In its fiasco, American was the only airline at fault. When it later instituted what Friedman called a “significant” loyalty bonus to incentivize customers to return, it feared its best customers might defect to the competition.

Today, all airlines are in roughly the same situation. Some have fared better than others, but no airline has been perfect.

“When brands are contemplating apologies, one of the primary factors to ask is, are we alone at fault?” said Sasha Strauss, CEO of Innovation Protocol, a Los Angeles-based strategic brand consulting firm. “Did only our brand cause a problem? Because if the answer is no — that many brands caused this same problem — then it is not the duty of a single brand to apologize.”

This is not to say there will be no apologies or explanations. Strauss said he views the semiconductor shortage of 2021 and 2022 as the model. Unlike the airline debacle, this shortage has not kept people from attending funerals, weddings, or family reunions. Nor has it kept people trapped in airports or forced them to wait on hold for hours. Still, the chip shortage has been an annoyance, affecting sales (and prices) of cars, electronics, and other goods.

Yet Strauss said individual brands did not apologize. Instead, he said, they allowed their trade groups to explain to consumers. In this case, Strauss said he recommends airlines ask their trade group, Airlines for America, to lead the effort. The six largest U.S. airlines, plus Hawaiian Airlines, are members.

“They’re speaking on behalf of the category and so therefore they would theoretically have the most information, and they would understand that the challenges are somewhat universal,” Strauss said. “People forget, these industry associations are not just party throwers. It’s really their job. The real work is done when there are challenges.”

This category is ripe for a group response, said O’Toole, who noted airlines face the same pressures, many of which they do not control, such as aircraft delivery delays, and airport congestion.

“United and American and Delta at a major airport operate much more as part of the same system than a Marriott hotel, a Hyatt hotel and a Hilton hotel,” he said. “This is not a brand problem. There are brand consequences. But it is a system problem.”

Having the industry association speak solves another problem. CEOs can stop issuing lukewarm apologies and excuses. And they can stop playing a game in which an airline brags about being slightly better than its competition.

If every brand apologizes, Strauss said, “you end up chasing apology patterns. It’s all about, ‘who apologized this week?’ And then people say, ‘Oh, they apologized nicer than they did.’ It becomes an un-winnable battle of apologies, and no one actually remembers who apologized about what.”

What to Say?

Regardless of which entity speaks, the messaging should be similar, experts said. Rather than apologizing for a problem that is not fixed, the brands or trade groups should explain how they got in this predicament, and offer transparent explanations.

“They should admit that getting up to speed after the pandemic has brought a few challenges,” Cook said. “Asking for people’s patience is not a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be a full apology, just a more transparent admission that this is a challenging time, and we are happy you are back and we are doing everything we can to make it better.”

Airlines, or their industry group, might talk about how Boeing failed to deliver a Boeing 787 for more than a year. Or speak about how the Federal Aviation Administration struggled to train enough air traffic controllers in key markets. Or airlines could acknowledge they let too many competent employees during the pandemic and failed to prepare for the summer demand. They might also explain they are not the only industry caught surprised as demand improved. No one knew how the post-Covid economy would evolve.

“They can say, ‘even though we don’t have a lot of solutions, everyone should just give us a little space,”’ Strauss said. “‘Industries large and small, from amusement parks to restaurants were traumatically impacted by the two and a half years of COVID circumstances and what everyone is experiencing is us working through that trauma so that we can get back to the business we love.”’

If airlines want to communicate directly with customers, O’Toole said he suggests airlines engage honestly. United has earned plaudits for two-to-three sentence explanations on its mobile app and website that explain delays.

“The most important thing, while airlines are rectifying the operational problem, is to be as candid and as truthful as possible,” O’Toole said. “What will exacerbate the problem is to layer cynicism on top of it. People may be frustrated because the plane broke and there’s not a spare available. At least if you tell them the truth, they can understand the situation, as opposed to obfuscating the truth.”

Most of the experts said airlines or their representatives should say something. Since the airline industry has few true substitutes — people are unlikely to drive or take a train cross country — some carriers might be tempted to say nothing.

But successful airlines don’t just cater to existing demand. They like to prod people to take trips they otherwise would not.

“If I feel like airplane travel in the United States is a 50/50 game, like you may get canceled, I might just choose to travel less and that would be a net loss for the airline industry,” Strauss said. “Yes, there is no replacement. But the airline industry wants more than the necessary amount of travel. They want people traveling haphazardly. They want people to travel at the last minute. And you are not going to get those people if people believe the airline industry is insular, or doesn’t care.”


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Tags: airlines, marketing, united airlines

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