I Flew American Airlines for the First Time in 15 Years and It Didn’t Go Well. The Pilot’s 2-Word Response Was Brilliant

A few weeks ago, I was supposed to take a flight from what is basically my home airport of Grand Rapids, MI, to New York’s Laguardia. I make the trip on Delta Air Lines almost every month. On this trip, however, just about everything went wrong.

It started the night before when I received an email that the inbound flight to Grand Rapids had been canceled. At that point, my flight still looked fine. The morning of my flight, however, that changed. I received another email that it was delayed by an hour.

Quick pro tip – if your flight is ever delayed by exactly an hour, it means the airline is probably just waiting to decide what to do about your flight. The delay time is when they plan to make a decision, not when your flight is going to actually depart. Sure enough, just as I was arriving at the airport, the flight was canceled.

Well, just because the flight was canceled doesn’t mean my plans were. I went into the airport to see what options were available. It turned out my only choice was to take a flight on American Airlines that would connect in Chicago.

So, for the first time in 15 years, I booked a flight on American. Needless to say, it didn’t go well. There is, however, a valuable lesson involved.

The short version is that just before we were supposed to board, our flight was moved from one part of the airport to another at the last minute. O’Hare isn’t exactly an efficient airport to try and navigate, especially if you’re in a hurry.

Then, as we boarded, our flight was delayed due to weather in New York City. A little while later – after everyone was on the flight – it was delayed even more, which caused our flight crew to go over their hours. That meant we all had to get off the plane and wait for a new pilot to arrive on another flight.

When they did, we had to wait for them to accept the assignment, make their way to the gate, re-board the entire flight, and hope the weather cleared up enough for us to take off and make it to New York. Obviously, the weather in New York City isn’t anyone’s fault. It wasn’t American Airlines’ fault. It wasn’t the pilot’s fault. It wasn’t the fault of the very competent woman who was working the gate either.

That doesn’t change the fact that it’s certainly a problem for an airline. If your entire business is transporting people hundreds or thousands of miles, a plane sitting on the ground for almost four hours is a pretty bad experience.

By the time we finally pulled away from the gate, it was 10:08 pm, three hours and thirty eight minutes after we were supposed to have left Chicago. Pretty much everyone was miserable by this point, including – apparently – our new pilot. Before we left, he made an announcement:

Well folks, this is your Captain. A quick update on our situation, but first I want to say, I’m sorry. When I came on the plane, I’ll admit I was a bit grumpy about being assigned this flight. I know that all of you just want to get to New York and I apologize if I seemed less than friendly as I passed by. We’re going to have a great flight and get you all where you’re going.

Don’t underestimate the power of those two words: I’m sorry. When things go wrong, or when you do something wrong, there are few things more important or more powerful than a sincere apology.

In the case of our pilot, I didn’t see his interaction with any passengers, but he clearly felt as though he could have handled it better. Truthfully, it was understandable. He probably just wanted to go home, or to his hotel di lui, or wherever he was supposed to go when his previous flight landed.

Instead, he was headed to New York. That made him cranky and he wasn’t at his best. That happens to all of us. When it does, the next best thing you can do is recognize it and apologize.

The Captain certainly could have just made his usual pre-departure announcement and gone about his business. He could have said nothing more than whatever he would have said on any other flight.

Instead, before he gave his “business” announcement, he apologized. He took the time to acknowledge that this wasn’t an ideal situation for anyone and his apology di lui meant a lot to a plane full of people who had been delayed for hours, through no fault of their own. Everyone on that flight just wanted to go home, or see their family, or visit New York.

When things go wrong, an apology goes a long way. When you do something wrong, it goes even further.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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