Air rage incidents demand steady nerves

As recent events impacting three Asian airlines indicate, carriers may be best off treading carefully with social-media responses.

Last weekend the Thai branch of AirAsia had to remove from a flight some rowdy passengers who allegedly threw hot water in the face of a flight attendant and even threatened to blow up the plane. The Nanjing-bound flight turned around and returned to Bangkok. Everyone on board had to wait for a new flight.

While sometimes air rage can be nutty, how the airline handles it reflects on the brand. After VP Cho Hyun-ah caused a stir at Korean Airlines recently, kicking the lead flight attendant off the plane over how he served nuts (in a bag not in a dish), the company reacted rather quickly to also remove Cho from her post. But perhaps only after the social media firestorm had already started, as reported in the New York Times.  

Singapore Airlines also recently re-learned how media attention (both the social and traditional kind) can be bring a lot of pressure to operational decisions. After incorrectly pricing business-class seats and initially demanding that travel agents or their customers make up the difference in price in order to actually get the first-class travel, the airline reversed course and honored the fumbled fares, taking the loss itself.

That's a lesson that is hard to learn, especially in a business that can be extremely cash-flow sensitive. Sometimes a long-term payoff can be difficult for executives to see on the horizon. Short-term pressures from shareholders and C-suite officers sometimes cloud corporate reactions because the KPI an individual or a department has to hit doesn’t include a reputational component. A major loss on the books for a given department easily overshadows the larger intangible brand goal. But to the public, that narrow tactical thinking looks cheap and insensitive; and doesn’t breed the kind of trustworthiness that makes consumers want to spend.

Not wanting to comment on the AirAisa incident directly, some PR leaders in Hong Kong told PRWeek that airlines need to be particularly careful when addressing consumer concerns on social media. There’s something about air travel that makes people particularly tense and impatient, and tempers can rise quickly.

And once that happens, the network effect of social media quickly compounds problems, turning mere aggravations into socialized aggrandizations. What business leaders sometimes miss is that the key component of social media is the social part. Social in general is the source of reputation and that’s the life blood of your brand.

"Real time social listening is definitely key to ensure you can know about issues and respond quickly," said Sam Flemming CEO and Founder of CIC, a social-business and consumer insight provider in China.

And if brands take the time to listen they might learn silence is golden in some cases. Twitter users recently raked Uber over the social coals in Sydney about a tweet about its surge pricing during the hostage crisis. The brand claimed pricing was automated and it wasn’t until a human noticed the news that the company capped fees and made rides free. But many twitter users had already noted that the first tweet from Uber on the crisis implied knowledge of the situation, and they aggressively pushed back. Uber has stuck to its story but the social tarnish is still there for the world to see.

"In addition to technology, it is critical to think of people and processes," Flemming said speaking about a best-practice approach to social media. He stressed that  "Just as important is making sure that you have all relevant departments connected, including customer service, PR, media and digital teams and that you have clear roles and responsibilities outlined so you can have clear responsibility within the organization to respond appropriately and quickly with a single voice or at least coordinated voices."

That coordination seems to be something that Uber lacked. And good coordination could also be the reason AirAsia didn’t take to the social sphere with the air rage incident, though its staff was largely the victim. Unmetric, a social media measurement firm, reports "the incident was a non-event for AirAsia on social media." The main AirAsia Twitter handle and the official AirAsia Thailand handle saw total mentions that were less than average over that weekend. 

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