Catch-22, but packed Aer Lingus flight was a reputational disaster for the airline industry

There are times in any PR professional’s career when you have to park your better judgement and take one for the team – especially when the commercial imperative of a business pulls rank over a comms advisor’s instinct to navigate a reputational issue with the most palatable public response.

Airlines are in a classic Catch-22 situation and need to find a common response, argues Steve Double
Airlines are in a classic Catch-22 situation and need to find a common response, argues Steve Double

It is a dilemma companies will be grappling with as business attempts to return to work in a (hopefully) post-pandemic world.

There was a case in point this week when photos of a packed Belfast-Heathrow Aer Lingus flight provoked a public backlash.

The airline committed to an urgent review and undertook to increase flights to reduce such crowded cabins in future.

Why hadn’t Aer Lingus foreseen the issue?

The flight’s high load factor must have been known well in advance. It was almost as if they hoped no one would notice.

In disarmingly frank comments, the regional airline Logan Air’s chief executive admitted what everyone in the industry already knew: social distancing on flights just isn’t realistic. The same surely holds true for most public transport.

The mantra of every airline PR in a crisis is “safety is paramount”, a stock phrase colleagues and I have used hundreds of times.

Yet it rings hollow if airlines aren’t prioritising passengers’ health as well as the safe operation of their fleet.

A lack of clear industry leadership hasn’t helped.

Perhaps in response to the Aer Lingus controversy, the next day industry body IATA called for crew and passengers to wear face masks.

Interestingly, the same announcement opposed middle seats being left empty to enhance social distancing.

In other times, full cabins are the stuff of dreams for airline CEOs.

Yet while Aer Lingus was getting slammed for, in effect, having too many customers, across the water Virgin Atlantic and British Airways were axing thousands of jobs due to lack of them.

Arise a classic Catch-22 situation.

Airlines arguably need to carry fewer passengers to restore confidence; yet, conversely, they need more passengers paying higher prices to survive.

Despite this apparent no-win scenario, comms has a key role to play. Airlines and airports will need well-planned campaigns to reassure the public that it is safe to fly.

To unite the industry in a common response, competitors need to collaborate to regain public confidence.

The campaigns will need substance over style.

With a fearful and judgemental public now well-attuned to the social-distancing norms, any diversions from the hitherto accepted 'rules' will need to be managed carefully and fully explained, backed with scientific justification if necessary.

Comms teams need to be ahead of every development, advising on the reputational impact of measures required to keep businesses operating, whether that be the timing of promotional ads, message content or identifying vulnerabilities. Their foresight will be essential.

But the airline and airport comms teams will not be alone.

There will be parallels for all customer-facing industries, and those most successful at reassuring customers will emerge the winners.

Steve Double is a partner at Alder and former head of news for British Airways

Thumbnail image ©GettyImages

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