Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

When a big piece of news occurs, one that affects all your customers, your customers would like to hear from you.

This was especially the case as airline customers began to experience fear after another crash involving the Boeing 737 MAX, in which 157 Ethiopian Airlines passengers were killed.

The FAA was slow to ground these planes, something that only happened when the Trump administration stepped in.

The U.S. airlines who fly them -- Southwest, American and United -- surely had a responsibility to then speak to and reassure their customers. (I'm a customer of all three.)

Each reacted in very different ways.

Southwest Airlines, which flies the most 737 MAX planes -- 34 -- wrote an email to all its customers.

It came straight from its CEO, Gary Kelly. Curiously, it included a picture of a Flight Attendant, rather than of Kelly. It still came across as personal, rather than corporate, because it was written in the first person. Sample: 

I realize this disruption may inconvenience our Customers during this busy spring travel season, and we will do everything in our power to mitigate the impact to our operation. For that, I offer my sincere apologies. To support our Customers, we are offering flexible rebooking policies for any Customer booked on a cancelled flight.

This is where American Airlines again lacked a complete grasp of the plot.

The airline is often criticized for its poor customer relations, for caring more about getting you there than making you feel good. For being a little impersonal.

Moreover, it has been the standard-bearer for stuffing as many seats into the MAX as possible, reducing the legroom for everyone, reducing the size of the bathrooms to pea-pod proportions, and flying these planes for six hours or more. 

Its email to customers was as coldly corporate.

It said most of the appropriate things, in a slightly legalistic way. Sample: 

Whether you're traveling with us today, this week or this year, be assured the safety and security of our customers and team members is always our top priority and we will never operate an unsafe aircraft. 

This was a troubling turn of phrase, given that American's own mechanics say the airline is currently flying planes "in an unairworthy condition."

The email also sought to reassure passengers that its Boeing 737-800 aircraft, some of which have also received the seat-stuffing reconfiguration, weren't affected by the grounding. Did many passengers think they were? It's hard to know.

Worst of all, however, the email was signed by no one.

If ever I wanted to hear from CEO Doug Parker -- and, frankly, I like to hear his patently forthright views all the time -- it was now.

Just give customers the personal, human touch, straight from the top. Show them that you can do it. Show them you're in control of what, to many passengers, is a frightening situation related to 24 of American's planes.

Is it truly so hard? By sending an anonymously-penned missive, aren't you confirming what customers feel you lack?

Yet American's customer communication still wasn't as bad as United's.

Here's what United wrote to customers: Nothing.

Though it flies 14 737 MAX 9 planes, which have also been grounded, the airline chose not to publicly reassure its customers at all.

I asked the airline why. It didn't directly address the lack of an email to customers.

Instead, it said:

Since Sunday, we have been working diligently on contingency plans to prepare our fleet to minimize the impact to customers. Our MAX aircraft account for roughly 40 flights a day and through a combination of spare aircraft and rebooking customers, we do not anticipate a significant operational impact as a result of this order. We will continue to work with our customers to help minimize any disruption to their travel.

When a piece of news is so emotionally impactful and when not every customer knows whether they're booked on a MAX or not, how would it have hurt to send a personal email from CEO Oscar Munoz to everyone -- to show that the airline understands customers' feelings?

Especially as United has made customer service its new mantra, sometimes to good effect.

I fear there might have been a touch of cynicism at play. 

I fear some bright spark may have muttered: 

Hey, Southwest and American fly more of these things. Let them take the PR brunt. If the United name isn't publicly associated with the MAX so much, that's good, right? 

I'm not sure it is.

Yes, the number of customers affected may have been relatively small. United may, indeed, have treated all those customers directly affected very well.

This, however, was about how you are as a brand.

All your customers have heard the news. Many have trepidations, whether they're booked on a MAX or not. 

Show them it matters.

Just as I completed these words, an email from United arrived. It was headlined:

Tell us about your trip on 3/13/2019 from San Francisco to Austin.

The email added: 

We care about providing you with a safe, dependable and enjoyable experience every time you fly.


Published on: Mar 16, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.