Delta, We Thank You and Your Competitors for the Crisis Management Test Cases

Delta Air LinesIs there an industry more vulnerable to crises than the airline industry? On the one hand you have the usually catastrophic nature of airplane crashes and terrorist attacks; on the other you have on every plane aggravated, gaseous, claustrophobic passengers packed like Pringles in a tube, armed with smartphones, ready to broadcast to the world any provocation.

Delta Air Lines on Dec. 21 flew right into a proverbial storm when two Muslim American passengers with many social media followers had occasion to share stale airplane air with passengers for whom hearing Arabic spoken is apparently a cause for alarm and a justification for confrontation. Two "YouTube stars" from Brooklyn—as described by news reports—named Adam Saleh and Slim Albaher were removed from Delta Flight 1 departing London-Heathrow and bound for New York when a "disturbance in the cabin resulted in more than 20 customers expressing their discomfort," according to a Delta statement.

Shortly after the two men were removed from the plane in London, Saleh posted on Twitter a video of himself in the process of being hustled off the aircraft. Saleh says in the video that Delta is kicking him off the plane because he "spoke a different language" and it's "six white people against us bearded men" saying they feel "uncomfortable" around someone speaking Arabic. He also posted a Periscope video.

Saleh has more than 300,000 followers on Twitter, and the story (hashtag #BoycottDelta) was dominant on the platform all day and was covered by the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and other established media outlets. The incident viewed through that video lens casts the airline and several of the passengers in a harsh glare, one that seems to expose a rush to judgment as well as panicky racism.

The exact nature of the initial conversation between Saleh and the uncomfortable passengers remains murky, but for now and for many people, the Delta brand—its senior management and all its employees—is responsible for removing the two men from the plane. It's your classic brand crisis in its earliest moments, when crisis managers and senior leaders must respond to an incident that involves just a few employees.

The first tweet from Delta related to the incident on Flight 1 was posted about five hours later, with a link to an official statement: "Two customers were removed from this flight and later rebooked after a disturbance in the cabin resulted in more than 20 customers expressing their discomfort. We're conducting a full review to understand what transpired. We are taking allegations of discrimination very seriously; our culture requires treating others with respect."

Delta posted a follow-up tweet an hour later.

That tweet linked to this official statement from Delta: "We take all allegations of discrimination seriously and we are gathering all of the facts before jumping to any conclusion. Our culture requires treating everyone with respect. Furthermore, Delta people are trained to and frequently handle conflicts between passengers...Maintaining a safe, comfortable and orderly onboard environment is paramount for every flight and requires the cooperation of all of our customers in conjunction with adherence to directions from our crew members...We have spoken with the customers who were removed; they were rebooked on another flight. Plans are in place to immediately speak with our crew and other passengers when the flight lands this afternoon. We will provide an update once we have more information."

Saleh and Albaher will soon land in New York to share more of their side of the story with the waiting media. Meanwhile, Delta will pursue its own investigation, although it's impossible to say how much of the results of that investigation will be shared publicly. But its two official statements made while all of the people directly involved in the incident on Flight 1 were winging their way over the Atlantic Ocean can serve as one possible route to take when your brand is getting pounded on social media, and a thorough investigation of the facts has barely been cleared for takeoff.

It's been a rough holiday season overall for Delta. As PR News Pro editor Seth Arenstein reported in the Dec. 5 edition, a customer spewing sexist invective disrupted Delta Flight 248 from Atlanta to Allentown, Pa., Nov. 22. The incident was caught on video and went viral on social media.

So if you're a crisis manager, you might consider putting a little note of thanks in Delta's stocking this holiday season. The skies are not friendly at all these days.

—Steve Goldstein, editorial director, PR News @SGoldsteinAI