Airlines get out ahead of new security requirements

The major airlines launched communications plans around new requirements on air passenger data in advance of the November 1 deadline, in a strategy to avoid passenger confusion and frustration.

WASHINGTON: The major airlines launched communications plans around new requirements on air passenger data in advance of the November 1 deadline, in a strategy to avoid passenger confusion and frustration.

Under the Transportation Security Administration's new Secure Flight program, travelers are now required to provide their full name as it appears on government-issued ID, date of birth and gender at least 72 hours before their scheduled departure time. The new requirements come in the wake of increased security concerns, following a foiled air cargo bomb plot in Yemen.

Billy Sanez, director of customer communications for American Airlines, says “the challenge we have in the airline industry is the fact our customers can buy their ticket 330 days ahead of their departure date.” He says that means even though AA has not allowed a reservation to be booked since September 15 without the new data being included, many bookings made before that time did not include the new information.

In addition to reaching out to those customers directly, “we also planned a PR and social media campaign,” Sanez told PRWeek. AA first started communications with its AAdvantage frequent flyer members so that they could update their online records. It also communicated the changes on its Facebook page and Twitter feed, and also created a page on its website. 

Sanez said they also implemented a communications strategy for customers who did show up at the airport November 1 without having filled in the information. Instead of telling them they are grounded, “we give them a message saying, ‘You forget to put in this information, please put it in now or you won't be able to check in,” says Sanez. “This way, we can deal with the situation on a case-by-case basis [rather than taking a hard-line approach.] We want to be proactive in a reactive situation.”

Southwest Airlines began asking passengers for the additional data back in March, says Paul Flaningan, communications manager for Southwest. “The TSA reached out to the major carriers early in the year, and we felt adopting those rules sooner rather than later was important,” he says. “We carry almost 100 million passengers a year so the opportunities for things to go wrong are definitely there. We were keenly aware of the need to get an early jump on this.”

In addition to communicating the new requirements through its digital channels, Southwest also created a “war room” leading up to November 1, “to ensure we didn't have any disruption of service for customers,” says Flaningan.

In terms of PR, Flaningan says the airlines benefited from the PR done by the TSA. “We've actually done fairly minimal communication around this issue,” he says. “We've left the major communication up to the TSA, and they've done a pretty good job of that.”

Sterling Payne, deputy assistant administrator, public affairs for the TSA, says the Secure Flight requirements were communicated using a number of vehicles. Instead of issuing a press release to media, it sent a detailed fact sheet. “Due to the complexities of the Secure Flight program we decided the most effective approach was to issue a fact sheet, which allowed us a little more flexibility in explaining the changes,” says Payne.

She says the TSA also updated the Secure Flight information on its website, and posted an item on its blog, which included a short Q&A about the new requirements.

But Payne told PRWeek the key to the communications “was through a strategy shared with those who had a major role in implementing the change, which is the air carriers.”

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