DEBATE: Tackling turbulence mid-air

Focusing on customer service and using communication strategically to highlight positive passenger experiences are a great way to enhance an airline’s perception and make the narrative a positive one

DEBATE: Tackling turbulence mid-air
These companies need to be honest with flyers, if they want their trust

Flight diversions. Staff absenteeism. Technical snags. These are just some of the many issues plaguing India’s aviation sector over the past few weeks, causing concern among flyers. As the Directorate General of Civil Aviation keeps an eye on airlines to ensure they are adhering to the safety standards, Christina Moniz asks three brand experts if the airlines themselves could do more by communicating with consumers and assuaging the collective anxiety.

‘Consumers are willing to pay for safety’

KV Sridhar, Global chief creative officer, Hypercollective and Nihilent

It’s important to recognise that whatever is happening today hasn’t just started overnight. Even before the pandemic, rising fuel prices, lack of skilled staff and price wars have all been key challenges facing the airline industry. Flying has now become cheaper than first class AC train tickets! When the pandemic struck and with flights grounded, there were major layoffs and most airlines were reduced to one-third of their manpower. Today, airports and flights are packed but there are not enough people to service them. This issue is not unique to India alone. Take for instance, Heathrow Airport in London, which currently can only service half its passenger capacity. With limited human and financial resources, airlines are throwing the safety rulebook out of the window as they try to recover from pandemic losses.

These companies need to be honest with flyers, if they want their trust. Very few industries depend on consumer trust the way this sector does. Airline brands need to admit that there are challenges, and define the steps they will take to address them. The government too needs to step in, provide some relief perhaps by way of fuel cost, and help airlines stay profitable while ensuring flyer safety. If ticket prices have to be increased to improve safety, then airline brands must come together, and the price wars must end. Consumers today are willing to pay for their safety. A conglomerate like the Tatas, which operates carriers like Air India and Air Asia, would do well to take the lead on higher pricing, since they already have consumer trust.

‘Dire need for airlines to course-correct’

Lloyd Mathias, Business strategist and independent director

Even as they struggle to recover from the impact of the pandemic, airlines in India have been facing headwinds on a range of issues from tech malfunctions and staff absenteeism, to lapses in passenger handling.  With two new airlines—Akasa Air and a revamped Jet Airways—about to enter the fray, the arena is only going to get more competitive. For existing carriers, there is a dire need to course-correct and reach out to travellers in a positive and reassuring tone.

Airlines will always face the heat, as handling scores of passengers on a daily basis is bound to result in some issues. While sincerity in resolution and ability to contain damage is important, there will be cases that escalate and get picked up by the media.  Social media makes this all the more volatile, rapidly compounding the issue.

Airlines need to be sensitive when handling passenger issues on-air, on-ground or in any part of the customer journey. Focusing on customer service and using communication strategically to highlight positive passenger experiences are a great way to enhance an airline’s perception and make the narrative a positive one. One way to do this is to bring out positive heart-warming stories. A great example is IndiGo, which had a pilot-husband acknowledging his wife on board and anpther pilot flying with his mother on Mother’s Day. These stories amplified over social media help bring out the human side of brands in a competitive industry that has seen many biggies bite the dust.

‘Airline leadership needs to be transparent’

Nisha Sampath, Founder, Bright Angles Consulting

Until now, air safety has been a hygiene factor that flyers tend to take for granted. Reputed airlines are expected to ensure that. But the recent spate of technical snags involving domestic airlines has shaken up flyers and made them anxious.

If airlines do not address the issue fast, they stand to lose both brand equity and business. Budget players are especially vulnerable. A business as usual attitude would be a bad strategy at such a time. Airlines should ideally have a communication protocol to deal with crisis situations like these. At such times, they should leverage multiple channels to communicate, and team members at all levels should directly engage with the public.

As a credibility building step, the leadership of the airlines in question should come out to address the public. They need to be transparent while personally acknowledging the problems confronting them, offering explanations, apologising, and discussing the new measures that are being implemented to address these concerns. This is also an opportunity for airlines to reassure and inform flyers about the various standard operating procedures (SOPs) that they are following to ensure safety and prevent accidents.

At the end of the day, the need to feel safe is important for any flyer. It is critical therefore that airline brands experientially communicate their safety measures at different touch points in the customer’s journey.

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