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Why are airline brands facing so much PR turbulence

Poor service, stressed staff, lack of transparency and clarity in communication are all chipping away at certain airline brands. What’s broken and how can it be fixed?

By  Kashmeera SambamurthyAug 4, 2022 7:33 PM
Why are airline brands facing so much PR turbulence
Airlines must make their automated customer response systems such as chatbots, apps or websites more responsive and efficient - especially if they are short-staffed and looking at technology fixes as a way to bridge the gap. (Representational Image)

“Give them quality. That is the best kind of advertising.” Those words by late American businessman Milton Hershey are particularly relevant today for India’s airline brands. But the carriers seem to be paying little heed, judging by the negative attention they have been drawing of late.

Last month, actor Pooja Hegde took to Twitter to slam the inhospitable behaviour of an IndiGo crew member. As she spoke of his threatening language for “no particular” reason, the June 10 incident once again put India’s largest airline under the spotlight for its “poor” hospitality and customer service.

On May 28, less than two weeks earlier, the airline had been slapped with a fine of Rs 5 lakh by air travel regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for denying boarding to a disabled child at the Ranchi airport.

Indeed, the month of May saw many airlines fly into turbulence. Tata Group-owned Air India was slammed on social media by a user for denying boarding to his diabetic aunt, who consequently suffered a panic attack at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. In another incident, “unserviceable seats” also put the spotlight on Air India.

Another carrier, SpiceJet, also made headlines after its systems were hacked in a ransomware attack that led to delays and passengers being stranded for hours at airports. There was also the matter of SpiceJet flights taking off late due to its delayed payments to the Airports Authority of India (AAI).

Social media is full of users complaining about services or products from brands across sectors. A cursory glance will reveal that a fair number of these are against airline brands.

Per the India Airline Passenger Sentiment Survey – 2022, conducted by LocalCircles, 25 percent of 11,415 people surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with SpiceJet, while 28 percent were dissatisfied with IndiGo, and 14 percent with Air India. In addition, 41 percent and 37 percent, respectively, complained about flight delays, and poor in-flight services, including meals and entertainment.

Storyboard18 reached out to IndiGo, SpiceJet, and Air India with questions. We are yet to hear from them.

As things stand, all of these issues point to one shortcoming: inconsistent customer service.

Poor customer service: Challenges and fixes

On IndiGo’s hospitality issues, digital media agency Mirum India’s joint chief executive Sanjay Mehta hints at customer dissatisfaction stemming from the possibility of the airline being understaffed. Mehta says that a lot of airline and hospitality businesses scaled down staff numbers during Covid-19, and now ‘revenge travel’ is stretching their human resources. And that may be leading to stress, he says. “Customer requests flowing in might be higher than the current airline staff members can cope with. This might be putting pressure on and causing stress to the staff.”

However, Rahul Deans, former head, marketing, revenue and network ]planning at Go Airlines, believes that passengers have unrealistic expectations of service.

He mentions the lack of understanding by the public and the media about how an airline functions. Deans compares a low-cost airline with a second-class AC train.

“Do we have front-page news if a train is delayed and passengers do not get a complimentary meal?”

However, an aviation expert, who wished to remain anonymous, told Storyboard18 that “from the perspective of a passenger, the DGCA has regulations in place to offer snacks or meals for delayed flights.”

Solomon Wheeler, Vistara’s former vice-president, head of marketing, e-commerce and loyalty, emphasises that some of the things that happen at airports are not in the control of the airlines, for they are a part of an ecosystem. That ecosystem includes airports, security, online travel agencies and external parties such as travel agents. “For everything, an airline cannot be blamed,” says Wheeler.

Still, airline brands’ handling of crisis situations throws up a lot of questions.

When SpiceJet’s system became the target of a ransomware attack, the airline did not divulge details on the real issue, which caused delays in flight departures, leaving disgruntled passengers with little or no explanation. The lack of clarity and transparency only increased passenger frustration and disappointment.

On this point, Mehta and Deans are in agreement. Both state that a certain level of transparency, honesty and contrition at the right time was expected from the brand. That’s Communication 101 if a brand wants to retain customers when things go south.

Wheeler also believes SpiceJet lost the plot because it hasn’t invested in the product, people or services for a very long time. Consequently, citing reviews that highlight photos of seat belts falling apart and untidy cabins, Wheeler says SpiceJet has been unable to look into brand building or provide quality customer service.

Mehta agrees, “If at the core, there is a challenge of resources because of which there is a problem, the priority is to fix that. While a brand can engage in any sort of marketing communication, if providing good customer service is a challenge that remains unaddressed, whatever the brand says will not be of any help.”

Wheeler recalls a time when branding and marketing was all about the brand telling people what it was all about. “Today, customers define who the brand is, or what they are as a brand, or the values that they stand for,” he states.

Tech, PR fixes

Airlines also need to make automated customer response systems such as chatbots, apps or websites more responsive and efficient. For instance, when there are flight delays, if brands are able to update that information on the website or on apps proactively, customers would be able to find their answers there.

While some airline brands provide this information to some extent, they need to make it more efficient in terms of coping with requests if they are not staffed adequately. If the issue is around an actual product or service, then marketing communications and good PR is not the only answer.

Still, it’s critical for brands to also make their public relations strategies more transparent, authentic and robust.

Wheeler is quick to point at examples of airlines in the West. United Airlines and Delta Air Lines came up with policies to ease refunds, cancellation or rescheduling of flights to ensure that customers were not inconvenienced during Covid-19. This resulted in the brands winning the customer’s confidence. As a result, the airlines extended their policies.

“If airlines in India convert their lip service into actionable service, a big shift would be seen,” says Wheeler.

Delta Air Lines came up with policies to ease refunds during Covid-19. (Image source: Unsplash)

PR mechanisms in a brand crisis

A solid social media strategy, an influencer marketing programme, and the support of some loyal customers in the form of testimonials could be helpful as a public relations crisis mechanism. “You should always have a ready set of influencers and not wait for a crisis to tap into the influencer network,” says Mehta.

Despite the controversies, airline brands should consciously engage in positive feedback and think of incentivising passengers for sharing positive experiences with their brand on digital media, Mehta insists.

What is necessary is an internal cell where a specific person in each department, right from the crew and baggage handlers to people handling bookings and reservations, could easily sort out issues bothering passengers on a day-to-day basis.

Feeling good?

Interestingly, a few days after IndiGo made headlines for not allowing a disabled passenger to board a flight, a feel-good video on Mother's Day appeared. In the video we saw IndiGo pilot Aman Thakur expressing his gratitude to his mother, who was also a pilot with the airline.

On May 26, IndiGo captain Alneez Virani made a special announcement expressing his privilege of flying his wife, Zahra Kabani, a pediatric speech and language pathologist, to Mumbai. This video, too, went viral. There was also a video of an IndiGo flight attendant Surabhi Nair's emotional farewell speech that went viral in April. Wheeler thinks the ‘feel good’ posts IndiGo came up with were appropriate, with the caveat that such messaging is fine only so long as passenger safety is not jeopardised. Airlines like Southwest have had musical announcements and have had crew members sing on board. Further, they even get pilots to do stand-up comedy.

“There is no harm in creating positive stories. But, if an airline brand only comes up with positive stories and does not lend an ear to what customers are trying to say, or does not make changes in its processes, then that brand is only busy marketing itself,” says Mehta.

At a time when the aviation sector is set for a churn, airlines will need to buckle up to maintain or improve their positions. If customer dissatisfaction continues to pile up, it could lead to heavy turbulence and loss of market share for their brands.

First Published on Jul 7, 2022 4:57 PM