Some 75,000 passengers were stranded in Heathrow and Gatwick airports in May when British Airways' IT systems failed © AFP
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Not a month goes by, it seems, without a major airline getting caught in a social media firestorm.

British Airways was the latest to do so, after its IT systems failed during a bank holiday weekend in May, leaving 75,000 passengers stranded in Heathrow and Gatwick airports in the UK. The incident came a little more than month after United Airlines suffered a social media meltdown when a video of a passenger being dragged from an overbooked flight in the US went viral.

Only a few weeks before, United was the subject of a social media backlash after it stopped two girls wearing leggings from boarding a flight in the US, which caused the #leggingsgate to trend on Twitter. Delta, which mocked United on Twitter over the incident, has also had to deal with its own share of angry customer complaints on social media, having cancelled hundreds of flights in the US in January and last August because of IT glitches.

But do such incidents cause lasting damage to airline brands or are they forgotten before they hit the next patch of turbulence? “The airline industry is under the spotlight far more than it ever has been because there have been so many different incidents and the experience of air travel appears to be getting worse,” says Paul Charles, former director of communications for Eurostar and Virgin Atlantic, who runs communications consultancy PC Travel.

The public has a longstanding fascination with air travel, he explains, which is why airlines receive a “disproportionate amount of interest” when something goes wrong.

Airlines are complex businesses, relying on the smooth operation of high-tech machines to transport customers safely. Incidents of varying severity inevitably occur, whether they are the fault of the airline or beyond its control. Malaysia Airlines suffered two deadly incidents within a year: flight MH370 was lost in March 2014 in still-unknown circumstances, then in September, flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine.

The airline was widely criticised for not being transparent enough and sharing incorrect information following the disappearance of flight MH370. It appeared to have learnt from these mistakes when the second incident struck. It drafted in Paul Charles and his agency and quickly shared any information it had on social media to regularly update the public.

For many consumers, buying a flight ticket is the biggest discretionary purchase they make every year or two, says Phil Bloomfield, global head of communications and PR at Cheapflights.com, the flight booking website. “So if the flight doesn’t happen, people get very emotional, very quickly,” he says, “and social media gives them an opportunity to vent in a very public way.”

This means that premium airline brands such as BA, which have built their longstanding reputations on customer service, are at greater risk of social media fallout when something goes wrong. “You don’t hear about these sorts of incidents with Ryanair and easyJet because people’s expectations aren’t so high; people know that they are getting a pretty basic experience,” says Mr Bloomfield.

Alex Cruz of British Airways, which was hit by an IT failure that led to flight cancellations and long queues at airports © FT montage; Getty Images; Bloomberg

The rise of low-cost airlines over the past two decades has forced premium airlines to compete more fiercely on costs. In recent years, BA has started charging for aspects of its customer service, such as some meals. It has also cut costs internally, including its communications department, which commentators have blamed for the poor PR response to the IT failure.

The airline’s failure to share quickly information with the media and customers on social media, and chief executive Alex Cruz’s failure to comment on the events publicly until days later, exacerbated the crisis.

In the case of United dragging a customer off the plane, the hasty and misguided comment from Oscar Munoz, the chief executive, made the situation worse. In both cases, the responses to the crises became the story, rather than the crises themselves. This makes them last much longer than necessary, says Gavin Megaw, managing director of corporate and brand at communications agency Hanover.

When passengers filmed Dr David Dao being dragged off a United Continental flight, the chief executive, Oscar Munoz, right, was accused of not responding quickly enough © FT montage; Bloomberg

Communications experts often cite the British Midland Airways crash that killed 47 people in 1989. The plane came down on a bank of the M1 motorway, just short of East Midlands airport, narrowly missing the village of Kegworth. The way the former chairman Michael Bishop used the media to keep the public regularly updated is considered an exemplary response by an airline to a crisis.

While this disaster predates social media, it highlights the importance of keeping communications channels open.

A recent example of how this strategy was successfully deployed within the travel industry comes from US cruise company Celebrity Cruises, says Mr Bloomfield. After propulsion problems forced one of its ships to dock in Barcelona in May, meaning hundreds of passengers would miss the Monaco Grand Prix, a team of senior staff including the UK managing director Jo Rzymowska flew to the port to explain to customers in person what was going on and quickly get them on flights to Monaco. “Small things go a long way in these situations, especially when businesses react quickly, responsibly and nimbly,” says Mr Bloomfield.

While BA and United’s recent social media disasters will be used as communication case studies on how not to handle crises, it is unlikely that people will stop flying with the airlines as a result. Airline loyalty scheme members generally will not change carrier if that means losing the benefits they have accrued, while cost-conscious consumers will continue to opt for the airline with the best deals.

As Mr Megaw points out, Volkswagen, which experienced enormous damage to its reputation after it was found cheating diesel emissions tests in September 2015, achieved record group sales in 2016 of 10.3m cars, with total revenue climbing 1.9 per cent. “People have very short-term memories and people expect things to get screwed up,” he says. But if an airline were to repeat mistakes, he warns, that could make customers think twice before booking.

With the relationship with customers already fraught, and the emotional stakes high, this would not only be bad for the reputation of the brand, but also for the industry as a whole.


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