Delta’s response to baggage fee debacle carries lessons for others

Companies should consider empowering staffers to do ‘the right thing,’ rather than risk a thumping on social media.

Delta Airlines learned the hard way that in the age of social media, you must empower employees to make good decisions and, if something does go wrong, to act more quickly than in the past. You also have to do what your audience would consider “the right thing.”

On June 7, Staff Sgt. Robert O’Hair posted on a video on YouTube (which has since been “removed by user”) complaining that Delta charged him and 14 members of his unit returning from Afghanistan an extra $200 for checking a fourth bag. O’Hair noted that his fourth bag contained weapons used to protect troops and Afghan civilians. The video was quickly viewed by tens of thousands of people.

In a blog post published the same day, Delta explained its policy and said it would look into the situation. It did not promise refunds.

This resulted in several angry comments from people who threatened never to fly on Delta again.

Sometime around midday on June 8, the blog was updated (although the date still read June 7). It began with the disingenuous, “Thank you to everyone who has participated in the recent conversations on baggage allowances for active duty military personnel. We appreciate your thoughts and insight…”

Somehow I doubt that very much, given the angry tone of the comments.

The update goes on to say they are working with the individual soldiers to make it right. Unfortunately, Delta continues to err by not being more specific. The company should have not only told the public that it was going to refund every penny, but offer a reparation (perhaps a free flight for each of the 15 soldiers charged for the fourth bag) and made that gesture public as well.

The company also changed its policy to allow four free bags for troops flying coach and five when flying in business or first class.

That seems to ignore several of the sarcastic comments about whether members of the military could afford first class. Other comments asserted that when it comes to our servicemen and -women, it shouldn’t matter which section they’re sitting in.

The Delta writer, identified as Rachel R., also used the PR technique of noting she is empathetic to servicemen because she is an Army wife. It wasn’t very effective. That wasn’t in the original post, and it’s irrelevant to the situation that ultimately occurred.

So what should Delta have done (and what should others do)?

First, people on the ground who have direct customer contact should be given the power to make decisions that, though it may cost a few hundred dollars, are the right thing to do for travelers. It could be military, families, elderly people, etc. Part of the training should be a consideration of how the decisions that employees make might affect the reputation of the company.

In this case, Delta’s effort to collect $2,800 could cost it millions of dollars in bad publicity and lost future business.

Second, if something does happen, respond quickly and do the right thing. As soon as this came to light, Delta should have publicly apologized and promised refunds, if not more.

Finally, Delta should have gone “above and beyond” to make it right—and to do so proudly in public.

The updated post is better than the first (the update is far closer to what should have been posted originally), but it still ignores the general sentiment of the comments and, no doubt, the public at large. And it does not specify how Delta will “make this situation right for each of them.”

Tripp Frohlichstein is founder of MediaMasters Inc. His firm specializes in media and presentation coaching, along with message development and message mapping. Contact him at www.mediamasterstraining.com or e-mail tr3@aol.com.

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