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Why Your Airline Says It’s Sorry

The domestic airlines would like you to know that they are very sorry.

Delta is sorry about the time it kicked a family off a flight and threatened to arrest them. American is sorry about the time its employee seemed to almost accidentally hit a baby while grabbing a stroller. And United is probably sorriest of all, about the time it put a passenger on a plane to San Francisco rather than Paris, about the time an infant passed out on a plane that sat on a hot tarmac and, of course, for that time a passenger sustained a concussion, a broken nose and lost two teeth when being ejected from a flight to accommodate an employee.

Air carriers have become more apologetic in the wake of the viral video spawned by that last episode, but those quick regrets have not led to broad systemic change in policy toward customers. Even as customer complaints against them soar, the airlines often respond with a quick refund or voucher, an apology that grabs headlines in a local news outlet, and business as usual. Some compensation policies for bumping passengers are more generous, but the main impact on consumers has been witnessing a seemingly never-ending stream of apologies that are a catalog of customer relations gone awry.

There is reason to say sorry, though. Justin T. Green, a lawyer at the New York City law firm Kreindler & Kreindler who specializes in aviation law, said apologizing reduced the chance of consumers’ pursuing legal action because it leaves them feeling as though they have been honored. “An apology will go a long way to avoid a lawsuit and is a very effective and economical way to improve customer relations,” he said.

The apologies picked up steam in April, after Dr. David Dao was dragged, bloodied, from the United flight “The Dr. Dao instance was a public relations crisis for United, but worse, the airline didn’t rush to say ‘I’m sorry,’ which led to even more customer outrage and even caused the airline’s stock price to drop,” said Joshua March, the founder of Conversocial, a software system that allows companies to engage with customers over social media.

Mr. March pointed out that United was already in hot water because of an episode a few weeks earlier at Denver International Airport, when a gate agent for the airline barred two teenage girls, who were “pass” passengers flying free, from boarding a flight after deeming that the leggings they were wearing were inappropriate.

“Both issues hurt United’s image badly,” Mr. March said, “and the lesson learned was that airlines need to jump to offer a heartfelt apology to their customers for any wrongdoings.”

Since then, the airline has publicly apologized at least six times. It has plenty of reason. According to the Transportation Department, it had the highest number of reported complaints per customer in April.

Other United States carriers have also taken public blame — though less frequently — for customer mishaps.

American’s most notable apology came after the stroller episode, in which video — circulated heavily on social media — appears to show a flight attendant violently grabbing the stroller from a woman who was holding her 15-month-old twins, nearly hitting one of the babies as a result.

The airline suspended the flight attendant and said in a statement, “We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected.”

Delta, too, apologized in its dealing with the family it was asking to leave an overbooked flight: The airline kicked a couple, Brian and Brittany Schear, and their two toddlers off an overbooked flight departing from Maui, Hawaii, to Los Angeles so that their seats could be given to waiting passengers; the Delta employee who asked them to leave said that they would be arrested if they didn’t deplane. After the Schears posted a video of the interaction, Delta said in a statement that it was “sorry for the unfortunate experience.”

Airlines don’t always apologize, however. Over the weekend when Takeoff, a member of the rap trio Migos, was kicked off a Delta flight, the carrier arranged another flight for the group but offered no public apologies, saying that he had failed to listen to crew member instructions.

United, American Airlines and Delta don’t have set policies about apologizing to customers, according to representatives for the carriers. In many such cases, the carriers have offered refunds, vouchers or both, so one lesson for passenger-rights advocates may be that it pays to be vocal about any mishap that rises above the level of delayed luggage and not to be shy about whipping out a phone.

There is movement in Congress to set clear rules about compensating passengers who are bumped. But for now, the apologies don’t quite ease the obstacle course that routine air travel has become, we are sorry to report.

MARCH American Airlines apologized for removing a blind woman from a flight after it was deemed that she and her service dog posed a safety risk.

APRIL 6 American apologized after a musician was removed from a flight because his $100,000 cello was deemed a safety risk.

APRIL 9 A United Airlines passenger, Dr. David Dao, was forcibly removed from a flight and sustained a concussion, a broken nose and lost two teeth.

LATE APRIL United apologized for putting a passenger, Lucy Bahetoukilae, who spoke only French and had a ticket to fly from New Jersey to Paris, on a plane to San Francisco instead.

LATE APRIL American apologized after a video circulated showing a flight attendant appearing to have violently grabbed a stroller from a woman who was holding her 15-month-old twins, nearly hitting one of the babies as a result.

EARLY MAY United apologized for an interaction captured on video between a New Orleans ticket counter agent and a male passenger, where the agent is scolding him for videotaping her.

MAY Delta apologized after kicking off a couple, Brian and Brittany Schear, and their two toddlers from an overbooked flight and warning they would be arrested if they didn’t deplane.

JUNE United apologized when a Colorado woman’s infant son passed out on a hot plane that sat on the tarmac for nearly two hours at Denver International Airport during a heat wave.

JULY 5 United apologized to a Hawaii teacher, Shirley Yamauchi, who had to hold her 27-month-old son on her lap for three and a half hours because a gate agent gave the toddler’s seat to a standby passenger.