The first time many Americans heard of Talon Air, a private jet charter company out of New York, was probably this week--after the mother of a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting victim took to Facebook to bash it.
Linda Schulman, whose son Scott J. Beigel was killed, tore into the charter service. When she and her family first heard of the tragedy, she said, school vacations and a major PGA golf event meant that every seat on every flight to Florida was sold out.
Frantic, she said, she found Talon Air.
"Even though I had never chartered a plane before, I knew it was going to be super expensive. It didn't matter what the cost ~ I had to get to my son!" she wrote on Facebook.
But afterward, she said, she was shocked to learn that she'd been charged not the $18,000-plus to fly from New York to Florida, but also another $18,000 to return the plane to New York afterward.
"I have no problem accepting that I have to pay for one way," she wrote, "even the fuel charge for the return flight... but $18,229.56 for the return of the plane? Where is the compassion from Talon Air, Inc.??? ... I ask anyone reading this post to not even consider chartering a plane from Talon Air, Inc."
Very quickly, her public post on Facebook picked up steam: Hundreds of comments, more than 1,000 shares, nearly 1,000 reactions. Many felt for her, although many others criticized her for chartering a flight and then trying to get out of paying for it. The story hit the New York news, topped Fox News at one point, and spread beyond.
And for the first few hours anyway, the founder and CEO of Talon Air, Adam Katz, apparently had no idea what was going on. (I tried to talk with Katz, but was told he's traveling.)
Talon Air appears to be quite successful: "the largest private jet charter operator in the Northeast," according to its website, with a full fleet of jets. They've also got glowing testimonials from clients like LeBron James, Martha Stewart, and Andy Roddick, and it's fairly easy to find stories about the company's good corporate deeds.
But now, all that was threatened.
We've seen it before. Talon could have quickly gone from being "the private jet company that LeBron James raves about" to "the private jet company that screwed over the grieving mother of a victim in a mass shooting."
All of which made Katz's ultimate response a smart lesson in leadership.
"Being that I'm a parent myself, I was shocked and heartsick when your Facebook post was brought to my attention only last night, at midnight," he wrote to Schulman, in a letter that both she and the MSDStrong Facebook page (a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School support page) shared publicly.
He went on to confirm what he'd told Schulman in a phone call: that he was not only refunding and forgiving her entire debt for the chartered Hawker 4000 jet, but that his company would also make an $18,000 donation to a memorial fund in her son's name.
With just a few short paragraphs, Katz's actions completely changed the narrative, turning what could have been a defining and negative story about his company into a positive. It all worked because he did three key things.
1. He developed rapport.
Few human experiences can create fast, broad bonds among people like the shared experience of being a parent. Katz was smart to include that personal detail about himself, and acknowledge that what Shulman and her family have gone through is something nobody should ever have to endure.
2. He acted decisively.
The media world moves quickly, and so Katz made clear that he hadn't even heard about this until about six hours after Schulman posted her complaint. Before the morning was out, he'd talked with her, made her decision, and sent her the letter. The whole thing was handled in a matter of hours.
3. He acted generously.
Talon Air had every right, as far as I can tell, to charge the Schulman family for the flight and the return under their contract. Instead, the company refunded the entire cost, and made a sizable donation. Legalism would have undercut Katz's entire effort here; he made the right choice simply to accede to Schulman's request--and then take it even further.
The letter Katz sent is here. Schulman's original Facebook post is embedded below.
What do you think of how Katz handled it? Let us know in in the comments.