Airline industry shooting itself in foot with bad PR
As the experiences of United Airlines and American Airlines show, a better balance needs to be struck between the interests of shareholders and passengers
It hardly seems credible, in this day and age, that people who deal with the public in their occupations are not mindful of the need to be seen as patient and polite, lest an unflattering video finds its way onto social media and damages perceptions of customer relations. That would apply particularly to airline personnel, following the public relations disaster for United Airlines of scenes of a passenger being physically dragged from an overbooked flight.
But less than two weeks later, rival US carrier American Airlines has been involved in a similar incident. A video posted on Facebook showed a mother sobbing while holding a baby, and a male passenger coming to her defence in an altercation with a flight attendant. The caption said: “AA (American Airlines) flight attendant violently took a stroller from a lady with her baby, hitting her and just missing the baby.” The airline said the video did not appear to reflect its values and put the flight attendant on leave pending an inquiry.
We don’t know the full story, but it’s enough to acutely embarrass American Airlines, whatever the facts. The US airline industry has been affected in recent years by competitive pressures that have seen famous brands disappear, compounded by the ever-increasing demands of anti-terrorism security. But such affronting incidents are the ultimate PR nightmare in a service-oriented environment. Sadly, the consolidation of the industry in the United States has resulted in route dominance based on regional hubs that has done little for customer relations and tolerance.
Rightly, accountability in the first incident has gone right to the top, with United saying its CEO will no longer take broader control of the company as planned, and that his pay will be more closely tied to customer satisfaction. There is a temptation for Hongkongers to say “thank God for Cathay Pacific”, despite its problems. These include a big loss that has prompted it to match competitors in squeezing in more economy passengers to improve its bottom line. To be sure, the airline must strike a balance between the interests of shareholders and passengers. But the experiences of United and American Airlines are reminders that people remain a carrier’s biggest asset – both passengers and the staff who can make or break their experience.