On May 7, the home-grown airline IndiGo didn’t allow a disabled adolescent and his parents to board a flight from Ranchi because he was feeling distressed. The ground staff thought he was “visibly in panic”. Their behaviour and decision were criticised on social media. Air travel regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) launched a probe thereafter. DGCA acknowledged that the airline could have handled the situation with more “compassion”, and “special situations” need “extraordinary responses”. DGCA has fined the airline Rs 5 lakh for this incident.
Right after facing flak for this episode, IndiGo released a video on Mother’s Day. Aman Thakur, a pilot with the airline flew with his mother, who is also a pilot with IndiGo. The gratitude video garnered over 19 lakh views on Facebook. Call it a coincidence or a well-thought-through plan for damage control, but another happy post from an IndiGo pilot caught people’s attention.
On May 26, Zahra Kabani, a paediatric speech and language pathologist, was on cloud nine. As she boarded an IndiGo flight, her husband Captain Alneez Virani made a special announcement expressing that he had the privilege of flying his wife to Mumbai. She Instagrammed this moment. So far, the reel has got over 10 lakh likes. There was also a video of a flight attendant's emotional farewell speech that went viral not too long ago.
Over the past many weeks, IndiGo has been in the news and on our social timelines for its feel-good stories and, on the other hand, for terrible customer service like in the case mentioned above. Are these instances mere coincidence or a curated feed of feel-good, human interest stories?
Storyboard18 has reached out to IndiGo; this story will be updated with their response.
Speaking on IndiGo’s recent incidents, Lloyd Mathias, independent director and seasoned marketer, says, “In this digital era, and as a part of its marketing strategy, a brand may choose to highlight some positive stories. The mother-child flying together was a heart-warming post as was the husband's acknowledgement of his wife on board. This seemed like a perfectly legitimate engagement from a consumer-facing brand which is also India’s largest airline.”
But brand experts also believe that airline companies like IndiGo have to buckle up and respond carefully in special situations. After the big business slump in the wake of Covid-19, focusing on customer service should be taken as a priority.
According to a report by LocalCircles for Bloomberg, 79 percent of the 15,000 airline passengers surveyed said they believe “carriers in India are compromising on passenger comfort and cutting corners as a result of the pandemic.” India, being one of the fastest-growing aviation markets, cannot afford to make such slips that could have a direct impact on the airline brand’s image.
Better customer services
According to Capt. Shakti Lumba, former executive director of Alliance Air, and former vice president - flight operations at IndiGo, “IndiGo is a very process-based airline. What is being produced out of those processes are ‘bots’.” There is a stark difference in the company culture then versus now, he observes.
Often, airline employees are briefed about processes and they don’t think out of these set processes, says Lumba. This singular strategy doesn’t work. “In India, there are issues related to culture and language where everything changes when one goes down right from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Such differences need to be kept in mind,” he adds.
As per a media report, IndiGo has started focusing on “digitisation” in order to present contactless travel experiences to the customers. From check-in to boarding, everything will be digitised. However, in the advent of digitisation, poor customer experience will only increase, believes Lumba.
Premkumar Iyer, vice president - national operations of independent digital agency Gozoop, says these episodes pop up mainly because of human errors. It’s time for airline companies to train their staff with the lens of empathy. According to Iyer, the best way to tackle a brand crisis is with a ‘sincere apology. He explains it is important for brands to own up to the mistake that has happened. That way brands can take corrective measures to ensure that customers are also taken care of.
Mathias agrees with him. Brands during a crisis should, “offer to extend an olive branch to the passenger who has been treated unfairly would work.” However, legal ramifications may prevent companies from publicly apologising, he says.
Iyer is also of the opinion that when a negative situation is facing the brands, there is always a controlled counter positive push to balance the narrative. "It is human and logical for IndiGo to push them more during crisis time so that the audience takes notice of the other side too," he says.
But that’s no excuse for brands, concludes Lumba, “Someone authorised must allow deviation to happen at the airport (when such episodes unfold). But the mentality is that ‘I cannot go wrong. And, that is where things actually go wrong.”