American Airlines offers tepid apology after booting cellist from plane

The airline removed a passenger and her cello—despite the cello having its own seat. The cellist and her husband described the ordeal as ‘humiliating.’

American Airlines has a problem with cellos.

The airline removed a Chicago-bound cellist and her $30,000 instrument after changing its mind about the appropriateness of carrying the large instrument on a Boeing 737 aircraft. The airline does allow oversized instruments to fly in the cabin, provided they have their own seat and meet certain weight limitations.

Cellist JingJing Hu followed the rules to the letter, only to be removed from her flight and prevented from boarding another.

The airline booked her on a bigger aircraft for the next day, but not before Hu’s husband Jay Tang had taken to Facebook to denounce American’s treatment of his spouse:

The post was shared more than 2,000 times, and constantly updated to reflect the latest actions of the airline.

Some responded to the post with criticism for the airline:

Others found the complaint tiresome:

One common cause of any airline crisis is the removal of a seated passenger from an aircraft. Such was the case with United Airlines when security guards were called to remove a passenger, resulting in a damaging PR crisis after the passenger was dragged from the plane.

Inc. covered the play-by-play of the cello incident:

[Hu was removed] was just before the plane’s doors were about to close.

Yes, she was already on the plane, having been through all the palaver of security. She was also allowed to pre-board and says she had been given a belt by cabin crew to strap the cello in securely.

Why now?

Worse, as she was escorted off the plane, her cello allegedly brushed the pilot. He apparently felt hurt by this.

She took a picture of him as he displayed what some might take as a V for Victory sign, as Hu was ushered away.

The airline insists he was signaling to ground staff that there were now two free seats on the plane. Airlines rarely miss a money-making opportunity, do they?

Could that have played a role here? The two seats were quickly filled.

American Airlines called the incident a “miscommunication,” perhaps hoping to downplay the impact of the mistake. However, Hu and her husband weren’t ready to go quietly.

NBC reported:

American Airlines told NBC 5 in a statement there was a “miscommunication” about whether the cello met the requirements to fit onboard the aircraft.

“We apologize for the misunderstanding and customer relations will be reaching out to her,” the statement read.

A tearful Hu finally made it back to Chicago Friday where her husband, Jay Tang, was waiting.

“I don’t think we did anything wrong here and I think the way they handled it was humiliating,” Tang said.

On Twitter, some musicians slammed the airline and promised to look elsewhere for travel accommodation:

Others were ready to write off the airline completely:

Some noted that American Airlines has a history of offering poor service to cellists:

Here are three lessons from American Airlines’ PR debacle:

1. Make sure your guidelines are easy to follow.

The “miscommunication” explanation offered by the airline hinges on whether an airline employee understood the difference between a cello and a double bass, two different instruments that bear some resemblance but are quite different in actual size.

CBS reported:

Hu said a flight attendant approached her before the airplane doors closed and told her she would have to leave the plane, as the aircraft was too small for the cello.

After she deplaned, Hu asked to see the regulations for traveling with a cello. She said they handed her a printout indicating that “bass violins/fiddles” are not permitted on a 737. Hu said the cello is not a bass violin or fiddle.

The guidelines employees were following required them to correctly identify a musical instrument instead of offering simple weight and size rules for oversized baggage. Keep your rules of engagement simple and don’t rely on general knowledge for proper enforcement.

2. Take your conflict resolution offline.

Though not everyone was concerned with Hu’s plight, many found the story compelling—and social media provides everyone a platform. You cannot ignore disgruntled customers and expect the blowback to remain local.

If a customer is dissatisfied, offer recourse through your organization instead of pushing them to vent on social media when they feel unheard.

3. Take care when placing blame on “miscommunication.”

At best, offering miscommunication as an excuse for poor performance is akin to admitting you are bad at your job. It also can look like you are ascribing blame to your customers for being too dumb to comprehend your messaging.

As reported by the Independent, American Airlines’ crisis response statement read:

“A passenger on flight 2457 from Miami to Chicago was travelling with her cello.

“Unfortunately, there was a miscommunication about whether the cello she was travelling with met the requirements to fit on board the particular aircraft she was flying, a Boeing 737.

“We rebooked our passenger on a flight the next morning on a larger aircraft, a Boeing 767. We provided her a hotel and meal accommodations for the inconvenience.

“We apologise for the misunderstanding and customer relations has reached out to her.”

The apology does not admit wrongdoing on the part of the airline and could seem to imply that the passenger was to blame for the mix-up. Though it might be tempting to avoid taking the blame, organizations that put the onus for a good relationship on their customers risk alienating the people whose purchases pay the bills.

What do you think of American Airlines’ PR crisis response, PR Daily readers?

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