Delta crisis communications plan grounded before takeoff

Delta airlines crisis communications

One of the biggest stories to make the headlines last week was the catastrophic IT failure faced by Delta Airlines, which saw over 2,000 flights cancelled and many more delayed worldwide. The issue was tracked back to a loss of power at its headquarters in Atlanta without an effective backup, which led to the breakdown of the company’s booking and communications systems.

At Cohesive, we’re so committed to getting to the very heart of the big technology stories that I spent 15 hours in Atlanta airport during the crisis purely so that I was able to write a blog about it!

En route to our client, ADTRAN’s, annual Connect Media & Analyst event last week, I landed in Atlanta on Monday lunchtime for a two hour stopover before continuing my journey to Huntsville, Alabama. Three cancelled flights and a dawn drive later, and I had a story to bore anyone who would listen for the foreseeable future and a first-hand experience of a crisis communications failure.

As the fallout continued well into the week, it became clear from a quick glance of social media that Delta is pretty much overdrawn in the ‘bank of trust’. Swathes of customers have lost faith in the company and the quick reaction from CEO Ed Bastian in this situation didn’t really make a difference.

Bastian should perhaps have stuck more closely to the crisis communications tips outlined by fellow airline leader Sir Richard Branson in a blog last year:
1. Get to the scene of the crisis as quickly as possible
2. Demonstrate that you are taking control of your company’s response
3. Be yourself in the midst of a crisis
4. Maintain your calm

Having seen first hand how Delta was dealing with the crisis, my personal view is that the process fell down at the first hurdle: the Delta staff in the airports were simply unable to tell people what was happening. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that they often knew even less than the people they were trying to help. The issue was snowballing at such speed and affecting so many people that information was changing by the minute. Today’s wealth of information sources meant that people were going to every platform available, trying to get any information, and often finding a different story told by each. There was no consistent message.

After communicating initially via video, Delta’s CEO only posted one additional update to my knowledge, despite the situation needing a much more consistent line of communication from the leadership. On the ground we knew the situation was ongoing – we just didn’t have any idea when it might be resolved, and whether simply giving up and going home might have been the better option (in hindsight – it was).

Finally, Delta handled communication around the measures they were taking to recompense customers poorly – initially announcing $200 refunds, which soon came to light as travel vouchers for future flights. “Sorry about your awful travel experience – why not take a chance on another one in future.”

Ultimately, this outage may not affect Delta as badly as some might think, since the airline industry in the US is so reliant on certain airlines to fly certain routes. Faced with the same journey in future, I’d have a choice of one carrier again to get from Atlanta to Huntsville – hardly an incentive for Delta to raise its game, or invest in customer communications.

It will nevertheless be interesting to see how this incident changes that way that airlines communicate with their customers in a similar situation in future.

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