The airline letter that didn’t fly
A few weeks ago, I was meant to be on a 15:55 flight from Kefalonia to Gatwick. But, due to a series of unfortunate events – I’m looking at you: floods and French strikes – it was delayed.
We were told to come back at 5pm for an update. So, we set up camp in a taverna nearby, strategically eking out the last of our euros and avoiding the side-eye from the stern lady in charge.
A few hours and countless crosswords later, we were handed this letter.
Tensions were already running high. This letter didn’t help. It didn’t help because it wasn’t as informative, as helpful, or as understanding as we’d expected.
We’ve rewritten the letter in a way that might have helped smooth things over:
We’re sorry your flight to Gatwick today is delayed
Severe weather in London and air traffic control strikes in France meant that the plane couldn’t leave Gatwick on time this morning. This delay has affected your flight back to London this afternoon.
We’re now expecting to start boarding at 6pm (Greek time) and to land at Gatwick at 8pm (UK time). Our team will keep you updated if this changes.
Unfortunately, the bar service on board will be very limited
The plane was held on the runway at Gatwick until it was allowed to take off. This means that the bar service has a very limited selection of food and drink left.
If you’d like any food or drink for your journey, please buy it before you board. There’s a café and shop in the airport after you go through security – just in front of the gates.
We’re really sorry for the disruption to your journey, and we look forward to welcoming you on board soon.
What our letter does
1. It uses headings that mean something
IMPORTANT INFORMATION doesn’t tell me much. As the reader, I’m looking for something specific that lets me know why I need to read on, and why I should pay attention.
Use your headings to sum up the content, or to signpost what I’m about to read.
2. It tells me why this is happening
I don’t know what ‘operational reasons’ are, but – to be honest – it kind of sounds like your fault.
Context is important. If you keep it vague, I’ll presume you’re shirking responsibility. But, once we knew a plane full of hungry, thirsty passengers was sat on the runway for three hours, we were way more sympathetic.
3. It sounds like a real person talking
Sometimes it’s not just what you say (or what you didn’t), it really is how you say it. ‘Purchase’ instead of ‘buy’. ‘Require’ instead of ‘need’. ‘Offer’ instead of ‘give’.
Using formal words can make you sound superior. But, neither of us can control the weather, or the French. Talk to me like this is a conversation between equals, and I’m more likely to listen.
4. It says ‘sorry’ straight away
I know you’re not to blame, but an apology shows me you understand. Open with that – rather than burying it at the end – and I’ll be much more forgiving.
Also, “we’re sorry” beats “we would like to apologise”. Quicker to read, more sincere, and friendlier to boot.
5. It tells me what I want to know
The fact that there’s no food on the plane isn’t ideal, but the thing I’m more concerned about is: where actually is the plane?
Open with the big news. The “we’re sorry for the delay, our flights were grounded at Gatwick” news. The “our team will keep you updated on when you’ll be able to board” news. It’s not often I say this, but in this case, food is secondary.
What we can learn
Think about the audience you’re writing for, and you’re off to a flying start.
What did we want to know? Where our plane was, firstly, and when we could expect it. And then, yes, that we should get some food before we board.
How did we want to be spoken to? Like we’re human – and like the people speaking to us are too.
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- Some work we’ve done in the consumer sector
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