Reputation in layover: Why airlines need to be more transparent with customers

Airlines' reputations are hinging on how effectively they find solutions to industry-wide problems like overlapping systems from merged carriers and communicate them to the public.

For airliners mid-crisis, there’s no such thing as an emergency landing.

Major outages at Southwest Airlines and this week at Delta have raised questions about the IT systems of an airline industry already hobbled by crumbling infrastructure and growing air traffic. However, it’s not just communicators’ job to respond to bad publicity from scores of delays and cancellations. They should be advocates for getting to the bottom of the problem, and talking about it transparently with customers, say experts.

"It underlines the question of why the IT system isn’t more reliable and robust," says John McDonald, founder of Caeli Communications and the former comms VP at American Airlines when it merged with U.S. Airways. "PR folks and communicators need to be aggressive as leaders in the company to push for transparency as the company finds the root cause and analyzes ways to prevent it from occurring again."

Delta, the second-largest airline in the U.S. by traffic, is staking its brand on a promise to cancel cancellations. However, after this week’s major outage, its reputation is on layover until it can win back the trust of its consumers, say communications experts.

"That campaign is coming back to bite them," says Ashley McCown, president of Solomon McCown & Company.

Delta is stressing the message that the cancellations of thousands of flights this week isn’t business as usual for the airline. In a video posted to the carrier’s media relations site on Tuesday, CEO Ed Bastian apologized for the cancellations, acknowledging, "This isn’t the quality of service, the reliability, that you’ve come to expect from Delta Air Lines."

"The message we want to get out to our customers is essentially what [Bastian] said: This isn’t us," says Delta communications leader Kevin Shinkle. "And while it happened, we will do everything we can to make it right. We will do everything we can to show it was a single incident — it was a big incident, but a single one — and we will get back to normal, which is being the best airline in the world when it comes to operations and all other facets."

Decades of consolidation has resulted in "tangled" computer systems at the biggest airlines in the U.S., experts told The Washington Post earlier this week, saying the airlines should have had "foolproof backups."

"Like the air-traffic-control system, airliners’ IT systems were put together over years of conglomeration," McDonald explains. "The systems were never initially intended to work together, but they do."

After the scale of the Delta outage became clear – more than 2,000 flights were cancelled over three days – the airline put its chief executive in front of the camera to apologize to customers. Bastian recorded a 58-second video on the first day of the crisis, against the backdrop of a buzzing operations and customer center.

However, communicators criticized the initial video for being too businesslike. "I would’ve liked to see more humility," McCown says. "It’s also a little on the short side."

Delta initially offered an incomplete narrative on why the system failed, saying a power outage in Georgia caused the system to crash, a claim refuted by the power company in question. Later, Delta acknowledged that not all of the servers were connected to its backup power source, "which caused the cascading problem," according to the Associated Press.

"In many cases of a crisis situation, in this ubiquitous 24/7 news cycle, you’re going to be asked to comment on the situation long before you have good info," says Alex Stanton, CEO of Stanton PR and Marketing. "But it’s important to resist the temptation to speculate about the source of the problem. Most commonly, that speculation turns out to be wrong because that early, you just don’t know."

Stanton says Southwest avoided speculation and instead focused on describing the problem, but Delta did not.

"In this case, [Delta] got ahead of themselves," he adds.

Shinkle, a journalism veteran who led Delta’s communications division through the turbulent week, defends the airline’s response.

"We gave the best info we had at the time and the public was looking for an answer," he explains. "The reasons changed over the course of day as investigators looked into a complex technological situation. It changed as facts were gathered. But does it show the perils of having to get out there quickly? Yes."

The AP’s reporting on the crises at Delta and Southwest indicates the failure of a single piece of equipment shouldn’t lead to massive, system-wide outages, and systems should be sophisticated enough that an IT platform can switch to a backup.

"In general, people don’t like to talk about vulnerabilities in their network," Stanton says. "When it happens, it seems like it comes out of nowhere."

On day two of Delta’s crisis, Bastian again spoke to customers in another video, this time in a different setting with a longer runtime, in which he explains, "This isn’t who we are."

"The second video was much better, much more humble," McCown says. "It keyed into some messages that are important for passengers to hear: we let you down, this is not who we are. They conveyed this sentiment that they understood the incredible inconvenience and frustration the outage caused."

Bastian later sat for a Q&A session with the AP, in which he explains Delta is investing $150 million in tech infrastructure and upgrades this year. A Delta spokesperson notes that the airline was being questioned about whether it had invested sufficiently in technology.

Shinkle notes that Delta’s news hub was launched about a year ago, and this crisis was its first real test, receiving upwards of a million hits this week alone.

Delta also leaned heavily on its social media arm to engage customers affected by the outage on a more personal level.

Cheap fuel prices resulted in record profits for U.S. airlines of $25.6 billion last year. At least some of that record haul should be reinvested into the companies’ crisis response capabilities, according to Nils Haupt, senior director of comms at Hapag-Lloyd AG and former comms head for Lufthansa German Airlines in the Americas.

"They need to invest some of this money into customer care," he says. "Money spent in social media and various response teams for incidents like this is crucial. It doesn’t need to be very expensive. But you make such a lot of profit that it should be possible to install a social media team or social media process chain."

Southwest, meanwhile, had to deal with a perfect storm of problems. On the day its system crashed, Gary Kelly, the airline’s CEO, apologized to customers on an earnings call scheduled to cover its second-quarter financial performance. That same day, Southwest also launched a blog space for its community of flyers and employees, which doubled as an area for it to interact with the public.

In late July, Southwest began sharing the information dredged up by its internal review, showing the partial failure of a router caused a "logjam of data" that resulted in delays in both its primary and secondary data centers.

Linda Rutherford, VP and CCO, says via email the internal review is ongoing and that "we need to know what we don’t know first and then decide what other information or insights need to be released."

In addition, two unions at Southwest called for its CEO to be replaced for failing to upgrade its IT infrastructure and prevent the outage.

In the coming months, earning back the trust of thier most loyal flyers will be critical to rebuilding trust, notes McCown.

"The takeaway for flyers is there is no fool-proof computerized system," McCown says. "[Delta] has to go back to its track record on cancellations. From a messaging standpoint, it has to determine how it can establish greater reliability around its computer system and convey that to all its travelers, but most importantly, its brand-loyal frequent flyers."

Delta’s reputation is based on the reliability of its operation, "the best in the history of the airline industry," according to Shinkle, which gives it an "incredible bank of goodwill with our customers."

"There’s no question they withdrew some of that goodwill this week," he adds. "But here’s the good thing: there was no run on the bank. Our customers expect and anticipate we’re going to get back online and get back soon as that best operation."

McDonald notes that both carriers must overcome similar challenges. However, customers by-and-large don’t understand the issues that cause delays and cancellations at airlines.

"Bottom line is that these outages are not that unusual," he adds. "So customers and shareholders need a better understanding of systems and redundancies to understand if ‘fixes’ being put in place truly address the root causes or are more dealing with the symptomatic issues."

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