The Tale of the Two Airlines – One won hearts, other lost face & billions

The airlines industry is cornering a lot of media and social media space in the last few days. The recently concluded Air India story and the ongoing United Airlines saga have become a study in contrasts in crisis communication and organizational reputation management in a negative situation. Both the well-chronicled episodes have garnered a widespread public attention and outrage, but the two affected airlines have occupied the two opposite ends of the spectrum of crisis communication.

The airlines, Air India; in the Air India ground manager – Shiv Sena Member of Parliament fracas, not only managed to unite the entire aviation industry in India, it even won the hearts of common public when it stood by the wrong done to its staffer by the ‘VIP’ passenger. The state-run Air India which had lost its preferred airlines status to other private run peers long ago managed to boost up its ratings when it chose to stand by its senior employee who was physically assaulted by the offensive ‘VIP’ passenger. Without issuing counter arguments or using media channels as its sounding board after the March 23, 2017, incident, the Air India management issued a statement saying that it would order a probe into the incident. In the meantime, it also filed an FIR against the MP and issued a red flag against the offending passenger’s name, effectively banning him from all their flights with immediate effect. The episode also united all Indian air travel operators under the Federation of Indian Airlines. The Federation also followed suite and banned the MP from all its member operators’ flight. That the ban was revoked two weeks later at the behest of the Ministry of Civil Aviation is another matter. But all Indian airlines together kept the ‘VIP’ grounded for almost 15 days.

What stands out in this entire episode is that Air India chose actions instead of indulging in a verbal and abusive blame game in media with the offensive passenger. That the said passenger went on relentlessly in the media heaping abuses on the airline and justifying the assault he had perpetrated, went on to garner immense public anger against the offender, earning more brownie points for the airlines.

By contrast, the United Airlines lost face in public not once or twice but five times. Firstly, the airlines failed to recognize the gravity of a brewing crisis when the video of a valid – boarded and seated – passenger being dragged out of the plane surfaced on social media. It then took a high moral ground of praising its crew for doing its duty, passing the buck for the incident to the airport law enforcement authorities and later issuing just a damp washcloth of an apology. Only when the media uproar refused to die down, and the company lost a billion dollars in the market value of its shares, has the United Airlines’chief executive issued the true heartfelt apology – which should have been issued as the very first statement after the video surfaced.

Organizations and we – individuals have many lessons to learn from these two incidents. First and foremost – now oft-cliched too – recognize the power of social media. Both incidents were brought to the public notice via videos uploaded on social media channels. Videos and pictures tell a very compelling story. After both the incidents, the offending parties have gone on to argue that the story was different – alleging that the victim provoked them with their words to act as they did. I wish to reiterate here that videos and pictures make for a compelling story, even though they may be telling a one-sided tale. All words exchanged prior to the incidents being lost, and the public saw only the assaults, the aggressor and his actions and the victim in a brutalised condition. A physical assault by itself firstly should never be indulged in. If that happens – it spells only one thing, that too in bold letter – CRISIS!

The first and only recourse to such a crisis is, genuinely apologize from the heart – much before your stock takes a billion-dollar tumble. Apologize first, especially if you are the perceived aggressor – it effectively stems the crisis from spiralling out of control. Greater the time lag in tendering a heartfelt apology, greater the harm to your reputation. Extensive damage control often comes at great financial and reputational costs.

United Airlines and our own Mr. Gaikwad, the MP from Osmanabad, both will take some time to come out of their respective crises. While air travellers will be wary of flying United, airlines in India will be watchful of a certain ‘VIP’ passenger. Our reputation, after all, precedes us, always.

This article has been originally published in The Economic Times on 15th April 2017.