As concern grows, airlines urged to resist over-communicating on safety

PRWeek first ran this analysis on how airlines should communicate their safety records in August, shortly after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine.

Airlines may be tempted to trumpet their safety records or the general safety of air travel following a number of aviation disasters that have left hundreds of passengers dead. But current and former airline PR executives tell PRWeek the strategy can backfire, and ultimately, leave passengers nervous rather than calm their fears.

In July, Malaysia Airlines passenger plane MH17 was reportedly shot down by a surface-to-air missile in Ukraine near the Russian border, killing all 298 people on board. Two other passenger jets also fell last month: Air Algerie AH5017 in Mali, and TransAsia Flight 222 in Taiwan. Authorities suspect bad weather is to blame for both crashes.

These recent incidents follow the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 this spring, carrying 239 passengers. Malaysia Airlines is now reportedly considering a rebrand to distance itself from the catastrophes.

The cumulative effect of the disasters – and a rising death toll – has made it a challenging year for the airline industry, acknowledges Nils Haupt, director of corporate communications for the Americas at Lufthansa.

More than 700 casualties have been recorded in 2014, which he says is "already a lot more" than all of 2013, which stood at about 200. Now the industry has to confront air route security and safety following the MH17 accident that has created yet another issue for the beleaguered airline industry.

"This feels like a new time. I would compare it a little bit to when planes were used as a weapon [in 9/11] because we haven’t seen [a passenger plane] shot down like this before," says Haupt. "Our industry is kind of scary right now. We need to work on making and keeping it safe."

To that end, the International Civil Aviation Organization, comprised of aviation chiefs, is convening in Montreal next week to discuss policies around flying over conflict areas.

Still, while a lot of communications are ongoing at the industry level, Haupt says Lufthansa has no plans to increase customer outreach as it relates to safety policies, including around routing.

Routing is often determined by a number of considerations including economic (air traffic control fees, fuel consumption use, and more) as well as safety and security, "but most passengers are not interested in it," adds Haupt. "They are interested in the fact that our routes are safe and secure, but they don’t want all the details that go into route decisions."

He also says airlines can risk over-communicating on safety measures, inadvertently adding to the fear and concern of passengers, as well as overloading them with too much information.

"If passengers cared about everything the airlines do," explains Haupt, "they would have to look at how much extra fuel an airline has on board to get to an alternative airport or the quality of the wheels maintenance and repair."

Jim Faulkner, director of corporate communications at American Airlines from 2011 to 2013 and now a consultant with OutThink Partners, doesn’t foresee airlines needing to address routing procedures.

Faulkner also warns of any airline bragging about their safety record or policies.

"One of the biggest unwritten rules, at least for US airlines, is that a carrier doesn’t brag about safety – in press releases, advertising, or any other external platforms," he says. "It just isn’t done because those claims could come back to haunt the airline in the event of a crash. If I headed an airline PR group, I would never promote the airline’s safety record."

"It only takes one incident and that house of cards could come tumbling down," adds Faulkner.

Following the MH17 tragedy, Singapore Airlines posted a message on social media that read: "Customers may wish to note that Singapore Airlines flights are not using Ukraine airspace."

The post was met with a backlash on Facebook and Twitter, with users calling out the airline for being insensitive, particularly because a message of condolence to the victims and family came after the message.

"We are aware that our Facebook and Twitter update on Friday morning may have come across as insensitive to some," the company replied in an apology online. "The post was in response to many requests from our customers who had asked for information about our flight routes for their upcoming flights with us. We recognize that the information could have been better communicated and we sincerely apologise if it had offended our customers and anyone else in the online community."

Mary Sanderson, a travel industry PR expert, who used to oversee corporate communications at American Airlines, says Singapore Airlines broke from usual protocol in making the social media post. Typically, aside from a statement of condolence, airlines go quiet after a disaster within the industry, even pulling their advertising in the immediate aftermath.

"[Singapore Airlines] was walking a fine line between trying to reassure customers and not sounding like it was criticising another airline or being disrespectful to the victims and their families," adds Sanderson. "This shows there is typically not a lot to be gained by commenting."

A number of other airlines contacted by PRWeek directed calls to Airlines for America (A4A), the trade organization that represents leading US airlines.

Victoria Day, MD of corporate and member communications for the organization, tells PRWeek, "We’re always making a concerted effort that the public, Capitol Hill, and news media understand it is absolutely the safest form of transportation and it is not because of happenstance. It’s because of different industry initiatives that have taken place."

She says that Airlines for America has not necessarily increased communications around safety as a result of the tragedies "because we’re always looking to make the safety message known." 

Day says the organization uses its website and social media to speak about safety, and it has also produced infographics to illustrate some of the statistics. Some of the literature, for instance, highlights National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Federal Aviation Administration safety data, which shows that scheduled air service on US airlines is 14 times safer than in the 1990s and 22 times better than in the 1980s.

Still, most of Airlines for America’s social media focuses on other issues, such as ticket cost breakdown and feel-good stories, including the individual efforts of its member airlines. The organization’s Twitter feed recently highlighted a United Airlines flight that transported penguins from Hawaii to Baltimore, Maryland, as well as Southwest Airlines’ donation of leather from old seats to be turned into soccer balls.

"We try to highlight [the fact] that if it weren’t for an airline, these good things would not have happened," says Day.

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