Take three airlines, three different crises, three very different responses. By comparing all three it is possible to gain a valuable insight into how to deal with a crisis. Or not.
In September the low-cost airline Ryanair announced that it would have to cancel thousands of flights because of a huge rostering error. Hundreds of thousands of passengers had their travel plans cancelled or disrupted.
Four months earlier, on a bank holiday weekend, 75,000 BA passengers were stranded when the airline’s computer system crashed.
Three years ago, just after Christmas, an Air Asia Indonesia Airbus disappeared from the radar on a flight to Singapore. All 162 on board were killed in the crash.
In terms of human loss, there is no comparison between the three incidents. But each one pitched an airline chief executive into the media firestorm that resulted, and each man tackled the ensuing crisis in a very different way.
Michael O’Leary at Ryanair
Michael O’Leary, boss of Ryanair, is a regular performer in front of the media. He loves it and is, by turns, controversial, abrasive or downright rude. This time, though, there was no room for levity and even O’Leary could see that. Twenty thousand flights were cancelled, disrupting the travel plans of three-quarters of a million people.
On the afternoon of Friday September 18 O’Leary took his seat in front of the massed media. Watching that live press conference, two things struck me. Firstly, O’Leary was in his shirtsleeves, no tie. It signalled a man hard at work, clearing up the mess. Secondly, he was sitting slap-bang in front of a huge backdrop showing happy holiday-makers on a beach – and above their heads the Ryanair slogan “Always Getting Better”. Irony is clearly alive and well in Ireland. Many PR experts would have torn that banner down before letting the media into the room, but O’Leary knew exactly what he was doing. In fact he was quick to reinforce the message -“When we make a mess in Ryanair we come out with our hands up. For myself I want to apologise to the customers who will be affected by these cancellations over the next few weeks”. He went on: ”It was short notice and for that I sincerely apologise. We will try to learn from the mistakes we made in this case.”
So far, so reasonable. But then O’Leary went further. He was clearly anxious to provide some kind of perspective, and in doing so, he turned the corner away from defence and apology to a clear message that by far the majority of Ryanair’s passengers would not be affected. He spelt it out in figures – “Less than two per cent of our passengers, less than two per cent of our flights will be affected”. And he didn’t stop there. He rammed the message home – “So ninety-eight per cent of Ryanair customers and flights will not be affected by these cancellations”.
There was further fall-out. The initial offer of compensation fell short of European rules and Ryanair was eventually forced to bow to regulator demands and spell out in full the options on offer. It is still difficult to assess the long-term damage to the airline’s name. However it is worth noting that in September, the month in which the rostering crisis came to light, the airline carried ten per cent more passengers than in the same month the previous year.
The cost of the debacle has been reckoned to be at least £22m but, despite that, many airline experts are predicting that Ryanair will continue to be a dominant player in the low-cost sector.
Alex Cruz at British Airways
For BA, however, the future is looking less positive. Their problems are many, among them an inability to match competitors on price or punctuality, and a penny-pinching attitude which has seen the removal of free sandwiches and drinks on flights.
But it was the bank holiday at the end of last May that stretched brand loyalty to breaking point. Around 75,000 passengers were the victims of a computer meltdown that left the majority starting, and ending, their holidays in the cavernous Terminal 5 at Heathrow.
In retrospect the crisis had been fermenting for some time. The man who recently took over as boss, Alex Cruz, set the agenda in stark terms in an interview earlier in the year -“We’re always going to be reducing costs. It’s been injected into the DNA”. Brutally honest or commercially suicidal? No matter. One side-effect of that injection meant that when a single worker unplugged and then replugged a single cable, interrupting the power supply, the entire system crashed. As journalist John Arlidge discovered when researching the meltdown for the Sunday Times, all desk-top phones and computers in BA’s headquarters building stopped working, and phones at check-in desks also went dead.
What also disappeared at the same time was any communication or apology from those in charge. It was three days before chief executive Alex Cruz appeared in front of the media. He did apologise -“we are profusely apologetic about what has happened” – but when challenged by the BBC’s Richard Westcott about why it had taken so long to go public, Cruz referred bafflingly to “live operational systems resilience”. Even Willie Walsh, past head of BA and now chief executive of IAG, BA’s owner – a man not known to shun the headlines – took several days to emerge in public. Yet even with time to prepare his response, he failed to explain the breakdown or the lack of any back-up procedure.
It all adds up to a negative image. BA has plummeted from 26th to 40th in the latest Skytrax rankings of the world’s top airlines. That is ten places below Aeroflot. A long, long way from the World’s Favourite Airline.
However, it goes without saying that no rostering confusion or technological breakdown could compare with the tragedy that unfolded on the other side of the world three days after Christmas in 2014.
Tony Fernandes at AirAsia
Flight 8501, an AirAsia Indonesia Airbus from Singapore to Surabaya, had disappeared from the radar. Tony Fernandes, the airline’s CEO, describes in his autobiography how he reacted when he got the phone call just after eight o’clock that morning. “My mouth went dry, my stomach flipped and I reached out to the wall to support myself”.
There was no time for self-pity. Within minutes Fernandes was heading for the airport and a flight to Indonesia. He spent the entire flight tweeting updates and messages of support and sympathy, many of them to his own staff. Crucially, the boss was making himself heard. “I wasn’t prepared,” he says, “to hide behind a shield of lawyers”. Instead, he headed straight into an incident room at Surabaya airport, packed with reporters, TV crews and distraught families. The news coverage of that chaotic and impromptu press conference is striking. At the centre of the picture is the AirAsia-branded baseball cap of Fernandes, turning this way and that, trying to deal with dozens of questions loaded with emotion and hostility. He stayed there, even though, as he remarks, “What could I possibly say to make the pain go away?”
He was called to a live press conference with Indonesia’s minister of transportation. Then it was back into the incident room with the families. “I met every single family. The questions were full of desperation and hope for the survival of the passengers [but] in my heart I knew they’d gone”.
Then, remarkably, Fernandes gave his phone number to every family affected. The only thing he felt he could offer was “good communication”, and the result was conversations that sometimes went on for hours. A care provider from AirAsia was also assigned to each of the families.
Lessons to learn
So what lessons can be learnt, and how has each airline’s reputation been affected by the crisis it faced? As I indicated earlier, it would be entirely wrong to equate cancelled holidays with tragic loss of life, but it is interesting to compare the current standing of each airline.
Figures from Ryanair show that, two months after the rostering fiasco, passenger numbers rose by six per cent. But Tony Fernandes can do better – his airline has been voted the World’s Best Low-Cost Airline nine years running. Meanwhile BA is dropping down the international rankings, all the time burdened with nicknames like ABBA – “Anyone But BA”. The airline’s own in-house magazine confirms that only forty-five percent of passengers say they are satisfied with the service.
The correlation between clumsy PR and passenger response cannot be proved, but each of these crises offers clear hints on how to handle a crisis.
Speed of response is essential. The ever-awake social media channels, backed up by 24-hour news, will seize hold of any crisis literally within minutes. Peter Bellew, chief executive of Malaysia Airlines, says organisations like his have just fifteen minutes to make their response. Chris Clark, crisis communications expert at FTI Consulting, goes further. He believes there is “a golden ten minutes” in which a company must post a message on an already-prepared website.
Then come the media interviews. Straightaway I can hear the complaint – and I’ve heard it many time in crisis training sessions – that “it’s too early to say anything. We don’t yet know exactly what has happened”. On the contrary, there is plenty to flag up – offering help, support and sympathy for those affected, putting events into context, detailing whatever action is being taken.
Nobody would wish a crisis on any individual or organisation but the manner in which that crisis is met can either enhance or damage their image. How a crisis is handled may well turn out to have more significance in the end than the crisis itself.