Jim Whitehurst
Jim Whitehurst. Photograph ©2007 by Brian Cohen.

The Most Refreshing Message By an Airline Executive — In My Opinion, Anyway

“Today, when I received an e-mail from the CEO of Aegean Airlines (my main airline for loyalty), I was immediately a bit nervous that this was going to be an announcement of some changes to their award chart (which I love) or something similarly negative – since this is what we are accustomed to from such an e-mail.”

The Most Refreshing Message By an Airline Executive — In My Opinion, Anyway

The paragraph you just read was written by Charles Barkowski of Running with Miles in this article which is titled A Refreshingly Positive E-Mail from an Airline CEO. “Instead, it was an incredibly refreshing e-mail letting their customers know that things in the scheduling department have not been up to their standards as of late and they are working hard with the appropriate authorities (like air traffic control, something the airline has no control over) to make improvements. I will include the e-mail below but I just have to say that it was refreshing to see an airline CEO write to their customers to apologize and explain about these delays.”

That article reminded me that the most refreshing message I have ever heard from an executive of a commercial airline — to this day — was in an old building in Atlanta which once housed Macy’s. Three refreshingly candid words launched a presentation as part of an event by Delta Air Lines called The Velvet Rope Tour; and I can tell you that the ears of every attendee in that room perked up when they heard those three simple yet unexpected words on the evening of Thursday, May 18, 2006:

“We screwed up.”

Jim Whitehurst — who was the chief operating officer of Delta Air Lines at that time — started the presentation by frankly stating that the reason Delta Air Lines was currently in bankruptcy was because “we have been failing you” and that Delta Air Lines has “not listened carefully enough to you”. He went on to say that 100 percent of the turnaround effort of Delta Air Lines will be on focusing on service and product, not on cost, as had been done in recent years; and that the goal is to be the number one carrier in the industry in terms of customer satisfaction.

Whitehurst — who is currently the president and chief executive officer of Red Hat, Incorporated in Raleigh and is still highly respected by many frequent fliers of Delta Air Lines — continued to say such refreshingly candid comments as “baggage performance was unacceptable and will be improved”; and had described the international product offered by Delta Air Lines as “tired”. Joanne Smith and Jeff Robertson — at that time, vice president of marketing and managing director, SkyMiles program respectively for Delta Air Lines — also acknowledged the shortcomings of the airline and outlined plans and improvements for the future.

When that evening concluded, I do not believe there was one disgruntled customer who left the building; and, of course, the food and beverages served at the event — which included the now-infamous chocolate fountain — did not hurt things one single bit. The frankness and perceived honesty of executives reaching out to customers, admitting shortcomings, and offering glimpses into the future had given everyone who attended a new-found respect for Delta Air Lines and its employees…

…and this discussion posted on FlyerTalk is evidence of that statement.

Fostering Trust — Especially Amongst Customers

To think that just because you are honest, straightforward and transparent that other people will like what you have to say is naïve at best — but at least with many of them, you will earn their respect and trust. They will know that they can count on you for the truth.

I have mentioned multiple times in past articles such as this one that loss of trust can prove to be harmful to a company when the economy falters — which will eventually happen, as the economy always rises and ebbs — as once trust is abused and broken, it can be nearly impossible to restore. This is just as true with personal relationships as it is with professional relationships.

Numerous articles which I have written in the past pertaining to trust include:


While conducting business in a town north of Boston years ago, someone asked me a question. “I do not know,” I responded, “but I will find out the answer for you.”

I received what I thought was an undue amount of praise from employees and colleagues for uttering such a simple yet sincere statement. They were not used to transparency and honesty. For them, it was refreshing to hear someone say something like that — and, of course, I came through on my word and found the correct answer to the question.

It is so incredibly simple to practice being straightforward and transparent with anyone — let alone customers — even if the information is not what that person wants to hear. It should not matter whether a company is flourishing or languishing in bankruptcy. Admitting to mistakes, taking responsibility for them and correcting them should not even be a second thought — and nor should being transparent to people with whom you conduct business.

Why is that such a difficult concept to grasp? Why does it seem that corporate communications and marketing departments of companies in general are loathe to be open, honest and clear? Why can’t we all work together to find better solutions which can result in a win-win situation for as many people as possible?

Management and executive personnel of companies may not feel they owe it to their suppliers, stakeholders and customers to grant every single request by them regardless of the consequences; but they do at least owe their customers truthfulness, transparency, honesty and clarity pertaining to the changes and implementation of policies which affect them; and they should learn from what Jim Whitehurst did on that spring night in Atlanta nine years ago — in my opinion, anyway.

The aforementioned message which Charles Barkowski should be more of the norm and less of an anomaly in terms of executive management of any company communicating honestly with customers.

Photograph ©2007 by Brian Cohen.

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