British Airways communicates clearly in a crisis

Photo: Gareth Wharton via Twitter, Washington Post

Due to an IT systems failure, British Airways cancelled hundreds of flights from Heathrow and Gatwick airports this weekend. The company’s statements were clear, straightforward, and sympathetic — a notable contrast to the overblown, self-serving apologies that seem typical for airline screwups.

As the gateway to Europe, Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world. So when British Airways’ computers failed this weekend, tens of thousands of travelers were stranded. The problems rippled out to other airlines who found gates not available for planes landing; passengers watched BA employees post updates on whiteboards, since all the computers were down.

In a time like this, only three things are appropriate: apologies, brief explanations, and instructions. And that’s what BA provided.

The British Airways statements are sober and straightforward

The main message to customers on Saturday, the day of the failure, was this 2-minute video message from CEO Alex Cruz:

His description of a “major” IT systems failure, “very severe” disruptions, and a “huge” inconvenience are imprecise but evocative descriptions of the problem. He describes the results in the active voice, taking responsibility: “We have cancelled all flights from Heathrow and Gatwick today.” He speaks directly to the customer, using “we” and “you.” And his apology is sincere, but not fulsome.

This is a disaster for both the airline and its customers. Certainly, British Airways deserves criticism for IT systems that were vulnerable to a 2-day outage from, as Cruz describes it, a “power supply issue.” But once the disaster hit, what’s the appropriate tone for speaking to customers? Apologetic, straightforward, and with clear instructions.

On the second day, BA issued this statement (also distributed as a video message from Cruz):

Alex Cruz, British Airways chief executive message to customers:

Many of our IT systems are back up today and my colleagues across the airline are working very hard to build back our flight programme and get as many of our customers as possible away on their travels.

At Gatwick, we are running a near-full operation, though some flights may be subject to delay.

At Heathrow, we plan to fly all our long-haul services – but the knock-on effects of yesterday’s disruption will lead to delays. That is also true for our short-haul operation, and there are some short-haul cancellations

I know this has been a horrible time for customers. Some of you have missed holidays. Some of you have been stranded on aircraft and some of you have been separated from your bags. Many of you have been stuck in long queues while you’ve waited for information.

On behalf of everyone at British Airways, I want to apologise for the fact you’ve had to go through these very trying experiences.

And to thank you for your patience and understanding.

Our terminals at Heathrow are again very congested today – so please don’t come to the airport unless you have a confirmed booking for today and you know your flight is operating. You can check the status of your flight on ba.com.

And if you are flying from Heathrow today, please don’t turn up too early. Because of the numbers of people here, customers are not being admitted to Terminal 5 until 90 minutes before your flight’s scheduled departure.

If you were at Heathrow yesterday and had to leave without picking up your bag, please be reassured: we have your bags and we will look after them. We will arrange for them to be sent to you by courier. Please help us by making sure you have reported your missing bag on ba.com and included all your contact information.

If you’ve decided not to travel this weekend after all, you can rebook for alternative dates any time up until the end of November – or you can have a full refund. All my British Airways colleagues on the ground and in the air are pulling out all the stops to get our operation back to normal as quickly as we possibly can.

We are not there yet – but we are doing our very best to sort things out for you. We will issue more information when we have it, so please keep an eye on ba.com, our Twitter account and on the airport websites.

Once again, notice the use of “we” and “you” in active-voice sentences. There is a short list of the types of disruptions customers have suffered, to show that BA understands, as well as a straightforward apology. There is also a set of clear instructions on what to do, such as not to come to the airports too far ahead of flights, and there is an offer to rebook or get a refund.

Does this tone work?

What’s going to happen now?

There will be masses of unhappy people at London airports for days, until BA has worked through the backlog.

The airline will issue millions of pounds of refunds and compensation. It certainly may lose future business, although I wouldn’t count on that, because BA dominates routes between the UK and many parts of the world.

It will have to invest heavily in further corporate communications efforts and marketing to repair its reputation. I’d also predict a large investment in changes to its IT systems.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see the total cost of this incident exceeding £1 billion.

So do these statements matter?

Yes. Here’s why:

  • By apologizing responsibly but not profusely, the airline keeps faith with its customers.
  • By recognizing its customers’ problems first and foremost, and its employees efforts only in passing, it focuses on the injured party.
  • By refusing to make excuses for itself, it reflects an honest approach.
  • By providing clear instructions, it reduces the disruption at airports and in systems to whatever extent it can.

A failure of this kind should never have happened. The fault lies completely with British Airways. But the sober and honest approach it has taken ensures that the airline has the best possible chance to recover its reputation with the flying public.

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