Apologies simply won't cut it when promises aren't kept

The old aphorism - "Under-promise, over-deliver" - remains timely. But it's never been so relevant as it is now during an age when systems of all kinds are growing ever-more complex.

The old aphorism - "Under-promise, over-deliver" - remains timely. But it's never been so relevant as it is now during an age when systems of all kinds are growing ever-more complex.

Witness a classic bad-PR event that has been on the front pages of London's newspapers and leading local TV newscasts. Heathrow Airport's new Terminal 5 opened with scores of canceled flights, enormous amounts of misdirected luggage, and a clear public understanding that while the facility may have opened for business, it's wasn't ready for business.

The meltdown features two main players. One is the persistently arrogant and inept British Aviation Authority (BAA), which runs the airport. The other is British Airways, the flag carrier for which Terminal 5 was built in yet another attempt to help Heathrow out of its long, dismal status as the international hub- airport savvy travelers prefer to avoid.

The response has included profuse apologies, including abject "personal" regrets from Willie Walsh, British Air's recently installed CEO. But his words ring hollow, given his repeated pre-opening assurance that the terminal was absolutely ready for service.

The British press has noted the debacle's similarities to other flawed openings of major public projects in the past several decades. Americans who fly through the Denver airport will recall the baggage-system meltdown that plagued that airfield in its early days. That mess led aviation officials to eventually abandon what they had believed would be a truly modern system in favor of a older methods that, um, worked.

The PR fallout from the Terminal 5 opening may be long-lasting. It will confirm negative opinions about the BAA, which is owned by a private firm, but has a monopoly - perhaps the worst of all worlds. The airport is still trying to move too many flights in and out for its runway capacity.

There's no doubt that the problems have harmed British Air as well. But they will moderate with time because the company will no doubt iron out most of the wrinkles at the new terminal.

The key error, again, was the CEO's misplaced assurances. If others take lessons from this fiasco, perhaps they should draw them from an industry that thrives despite customers' clear understanding that the launch date is merely another day in a much longer process.

I'm thinking of software, almost all of which is perpetually flawed and under improvement. More than a decade ago, Netscape released its first browser and called it a "beta" product, acknowledging that there were bugs and that someday the software would be considered good enough to deserve removing the "beta" tag. Even then, however, bugs would remain.

We live life itself in beta, working to fix our personal bugs and keep improving. Life is complicated.

Some things need to be closer to flawless the first time the public uses them. New airplanes qualify here. We should absolutely not settle for, "Well, it's complicated" as an excuse for shoddy products or services.

We should, however, recognize that complexity exists. CEOs and their PR folks can help us all understand this.

Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. Send e-mail to dan@gillmor.com.

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