Is this a terminal crisis for Malaysia Airlines?

It depends how much trust passengers will continue to have on the brand.

Adam Murray is a corporate communications consultant and founder of BlackLab Marketing Communications
Adam Murray is a corporate communications consultant and founder of BlackLab Marketing Communications

It has been impossible to ignore this week’s dreadful news of the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. A lot has already been written about the tragic circumstances behind the shooting down of the aircraft over the Ukraine with 298 people on board. Much more has yet to be discovered about why this terrible thing occurred. What is doubly shocking is that such a massive tragedy has struck the same airline in quick succession, following the still unsolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March, with 239 passengers on board.

Although it’s a minor consideration compared to the grief of the passengers’ families, another issue is what this means for Malaysia Airlines. How well has it responded to this terrible situation? Can the brand and the company survive this second tragedy, or is this a crisis too big and one too many?

Scale

The first thing to consider is that no brand, certainly in the aviation industry, has suffered two such big tragedies in such quick succession. It’s unprecedented. And it’s already pretty certain that the loss of MH17 is not Malaysia Airlines’ fault. So arguably this affords the company sympathy, but one must wonder whether an intangible feeling of bad luck will now be attached to the brand, and how willing will passengers be to use the airline.

Response

The mysterious disappearance of MH370 led to a reaction from Malaysia Airlines that received considerable criticism. Unfortunately for Malaysia, it lacked information about what had happened in March, and this led to a confused response. It still remains unclear what happened and whether the airline bore any responsibility for MH370’s loss. Many people felt that what little information was available was poorly communicated to the families of the passengers, and this added to their distress.

This time, MH17 was shot down. This time, Malaysia Airlines is the victim, because the incident is so extreme. By the start of this week, Malaysia Airlines had already announced that as a mark of respect it would retire the route’s number. There will be no more MH17 flights. They are communicating more on Twitter and Facebook and getting out on the media. These may seem like small gestures, but they have been decisive, and consequently the airline’s immediate response seems to be more caring and consistent than before.

In crisis situations, decisive, clear and fast responses are important. They demonstrate that an organisation is open, transparent and responsible. This communicates a lot about their business and their competency, and can win or lose them sympathy depending on the quality of response. In this case, the airline has clearly learned a lesson from their indecision in March.

Best practice

However, a question mark exists over why Malaysia Airlines allowed MH17 to use the flight-path that put it at risk. It remains to be seen just how frequently it, and other airlines, take this route, and to what extent passengers have been put at risk since the escalation of hostilities in the Ukraine. It may be the case that Malaysia has unfortunately been the fall guy for an industry that hasn’t taken seriously enough the situation in the region. In which case, at least it can’t be singled out for having a particularly cavalier attitude to passenger safety.

Trust

Ultimately, Malaysia Airlines will survive or fold depending on how much trust passengers will continue to have in the company and the brand. Presently, this is difficult to gauge. In spite of the airline winning the Skytrax "World Best Cabin Crew" award as recently as 2012, and having won this title eight times since 2001, the loss of the two Malaysia planes and such a massive loss of life may be too much for the company to bear.

A lot may also depend upon how much trust its partners in the oneworld airline alliance have in the company. If partners such as American Airlines, British Airways, Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines feel that their association with Malaysia detrimentally affects their brands’ reputations, their actions could have serious consequences for the future of the brand.

Possibilities

It might be the case that the tragedies have made it impossible for Malaysia Airlines to continue in its current incarnation. Perhaps a re-organisation, a new leadership and even a re-branding will be necessary. These suggestions may sound like superficial solutions to grave problems, but they would send the message to consumers that Malaysia’s national airline is a different entity than that which suffered so much. It might represent a new start that could ultimately save the thousands of jobs that the airline currently supports. For these to be lost too would be an additional misfortune that I’m sure we would all be glad to avoid.

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