Just Tell Me the Bad News
by Dana Bristol-Smith

The worst flight I’ve ever been on was a United Airlines flight from Osaka, Japan to San Francisco last year. What was so terrible about the flight, besides the near constant 10 hours of turbulence, was the fact the pilot never once spoke to us to give any information or updates.

We only heard what I assumed to be the Captain’s voice a couple of times when he announced “Flight attendants be seated” while the flight attendants were trying to serve meals.

I saw a recent customer service study on airline service. It concluded that passengers would put up with just about any inconvenience as long as they were kept informed of what was happening and why.

Back to the bumpy flight from Osaka. I was feeling very anxious and upset so I asked a flight attendant what was going on. Her reply was that it was going to be like this the whole way as there were storms everywhere. I knew that this flight attendant was not in charge—so it didn’t make me feel a whole lot better to get information from her, such that I did.

Flying is not my favorite activity and truth be told, I’m incredibly nervous when experiencing turbulence. I get very religious and pray a lot. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one that feels this way. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to be nervous when one is traveling 35,000 feet above the Earth!

What makes me feel much more safe and comfortable
is to hear from the Captain what I can expect
to experience with the flight.

I don’t mean for this article to be a commercial or complaint on the airlines, but a comparison of the ways in which they communicate to their passengers. What’s interesting to note, and not a huge surprise, is that how well they communicate is directly reflected in their financial health and viability as companies.

A recent trip with JetBlue was a much different experience. Coming back from Boston to San Diego, we received a greeting from our Captain even before our takeoff. He told us what number we were in line to take off. Then, after we were up in the air, he told us about the conditions he anticipated along the way. He said it looked to be smooth most of the way and he would update us as we got closer to our destination.

I felt reassured by Captain JetBlue. I felt that there was someone in charge that cared about my well being and safety—and I wasn’t nervous. In the last one and a half hours of the flight, he came on and said that we were approaching some unstable air and that we’d have some bumps for the next 10-15 minutes. And, we did. We got through those and a little later he came on again with a new report that there were high winds and that he’d keep the seat belt sign on for our safety. Was I nervous now? Yes, I was—but I wasn’t feeling anxious because I knew what to expect.

The pilot's communications made a
huge difference to me!

These experiences and insights came to mind recently when I was told by a client that it was important that their managers be able to tell the bad news early, in their presentations and reports to senior executives.

Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. It can be uncomfortable to share and difficult to admit that we made a mistake that caused the situation. Often, for that reason, bad news doesn’t get delivered in a timely or direct way.

What we have to understand is that bad news
is probably more important than good news.

By delivering bad news we are letting people know something that might have a significant impact on them—and by knowing about it—they might be able to mitigate it or address it before it becomes a huge problem.

I don’t know if Captain United didn’t like to give bad news, such as “Folks, I’m sorry to report that we are in for a long bumpy flight, and there’s nothing that we can do about it” or if he was busy watching a football game on TV in the cockpit. And, I’ll never know— but what I do know is this:

I only want to do business with companies that
will communicate with me with honesty, and respect, and
tell me the good news as well as the bad.

As a side note, earlier this year JetBlue Airways made some big mistakes and kept people on planes that had long delays on the tarmac. To their credit, CEO, David Neeleman did something that CEO’s usually don’t, he apologized publicly for his company's behavior.

From the quality of their communications, I bet that you can guess which airline I'll be flying again, and which one I'll be avoiding.

For an example of good communication, here’s David Neeleman's apology letter:

February 21, 2007

Dear JetBlue Customers,

We are sorry and embarrassed. But most of all, we are deeply sorry.

Last week was the worst operational week in JetBlue's seven year history. Following the severe winter ice storm in the Northeast, we subjected our customers to unacceptable delays, flight cancellations, lost baggage, and other major inconveniences. The storm disrupted the movement of aircraft, and, more importantly, disrupted the movement of JetBlue's pilot and inflight crewmembers who were depending on those planes to get them to the airports where they were scheduled to serve you. With the busy President's Day weekend upon us, rebooking opportunities were scarce and hold times at 1-800-JETBLUE were unacceptably long or not even available, further hindering our recovery efforts.

Words cannot express how truly sorry we are for the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that we caused. This is especially saddening because JetBlue was founded on the promise of bringing humanity back to air travel and making the experience of flying happier and easier for everyone who chooses to fly with us. We know we failed to deliver on this promise last week.

We are committed to you, our valued customers, and are taking immediate corrective steps to regain your confidence in us. We have begun putting a comprehensive plan in place to provide better and more timely information to you, more tools and resources for our crewmembers and improved procedures for handling operational difficulties in the future. We are confident, as a result of these actions, that JetBlue will emerge as a more reliable and even more customer responsive airline than ever before.

Most importantly, we have published the JetBlue Airways Customer Bill of Rights—our official commitment to you of how we will handle operational interruptions going forward—including details of compensation. I have a video message to share with you about this industry leading action.

You deserved better—a lot better—from us last week. Nothing is more important than regaining your trust and all of us here hope you will give us the opportunity to welcome you onboard again soon and provide you the positive JetBlue Experience you have come to expect from us.


David Neeleman
Founder and CEO
JetBlue Airways


About the Author
Dana Bristol-Smith is the founder of Speak for Success, an organization that works with companies that want their people to communicate with confidence and credibility. You can email Dana at:dana@speakforsuccess.net