How to keep the airline brands flying high in bad weather?

By Shashank Nigam

At Sea-Tac airport in Seattle yesterday, many slept on the floor or in chairs, while other bleary-eyed passengers again stood in lines that snaked around the terminal, some counting their delays by days rather than hours. All this, caused by some of the worst snow-storms during the peak travel period in the Northwestern US.

To rub salt to the wounds, “Horizon and Alaska Air left customers fuming because they were unable to get through to Alaska or Horizon reservations agents on the phone or on the Web site to rebook travel”, the Seattle Times reported. Under normal circumstances, these services would have worked fine. Unfortunately, Alaska wasn’t the only airline badly affected by the mess, but also others like United Airlines. Though I haven’t heard too many good things about United, Alaska Air has certainly impressed in the past when it came to caring for their passengers. But things like these still happened. So, what can the airlines do to capitalize on externalities like these to actually build their brand further?

Airline branding resilience snow storms

Be prepared

In case of inclement weather, passengers should be provided with up to date information (can’t emphasize this more!). Call center staff and website servers should be beefed up in advance. Items essential for the successful operation of a flight must be stocked up – like the de-icing fluids Alaska Air ran out of. It wasn’t that this snow storm came out of nowhere. There was ample warning given to the airlines.

I know, this is easier said than done, but in tough times, the preparedness of an airline must be clearly visible to the customers, in order to prevent a complete depletion of trust. A brand that stands by their customers in tough times commands their loyalty.

Be resilient

The most important factor for building confidence in a brand is the ability of a company to bounce back from a shock. If Alaska Air and others had made alternative arrangements for the passengers to get to their destinations, or at least put them up in hotels for those flying coast-to-coast, some passengers might have been less furious. But this didn’t really happen. Again, the lack of preparedness and advance planning was be visible for all to see and spoke volumes about the management.

It is difficult situations like these, which if handled well, can turn into hidden opportunity for airlines.

Show some empathy

Tempers generally run high during unexpected emergency situations like these, in which no one can do anything about it but sit and wait. This is when the airline staff has a crucial role to play. They will only aggravate the situation further if they simpy react and only go by the book.Simply, they can appear in control if they smile more, as Patrick Hanlon recommends.

There is a need for the staff to put themselves in the passengers’ shoes and comfort them a little. If it takes bending the rules a little, so be it. The goodwill generated will go a long way in building brand loyalty. Most importantly, airlines should empower the employees to take decisions on their own to a certain extent, when the situation demands it.

Stop being a faceless airline, add some personality

Rohit Bhargava mentions in his new book, “Personality not included“, that it’s very easy to get angry at and attack a faceless corporation. But once you add personality to the brand, people see the individuals behind the company and tend to empathize with them. After all, suddenly the company is more human, and humans make mistakes.

A prime example of an airline that has done a great job at this is JetBlue Airways. Having faced with a much worse crisis in Feb 2007, David Neelman, the then CEO, posted an apology on the blog for the massive delays caused due to severe weather in New York. At the end of the day, JetBlue’s efforts resonated well with customers, who lauded the personal touches from an airline.

Response to externalities is a crucial, but often overlooked, strategy that can be utilized by airlines to win the hearts and minds of their passengers. Do you have any instances to share when an airline dealt with an emergency in a professional manner and totally impressed you? How could the airlines have dealt with this particular situation better? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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  • MuthuSingarVadivelu Mu

    I would like to make a few observations here.

    The third and fourth factors that you talk about here can be grouped together to form the HUMAN part of the service that the airline provides. Empathy and Personality are more like identical twins that dont really resemble each other. These two factors are derived out of the same resources – the employees. In general these two can be visualized as ‘respect for each other’ ( the airlines and the customer) and ‘understanding each other’s problems’. More of a ‘mutual understanding’ which when established will do wonders to the image of the airline and will help in easing out tensions.

  • Shashank Nigam

    @Muthu: Good point. In fact, just like the last two points are people related, the first two are organization related. And you’re right, mutual respect and understanding can do wonders – it’s something many airlines lack, and what can mean the difference between a good experience and a great experience.

    But what makes the brand experience truly unforgettable is the adding of personality to the airline brand. This is generally a lot of work, not just for the employees, but organizationally as well. For example, the famous Singapore Girl personality at SIA wasn’t cultivated overnight, but is a result of a lot of efforts both from the management and the stewardesses. Hence, I personally feel empathy is generally a short-term element cultivated by individual employees. And personality is a much longer term investment in the brand that requires the commitment of not just the staff, but also the management.

  • Ted Braun

    Several carriers have begun canceling flights in advance of forecasted inclement weather rather than waiting to be caught in the midst of a snow storm/hurricane or tornado. Being transparent about it and communicating the facts to travelers is the best solution in my view. Irregular operations cause extreme havoc with aircraft and crews all in the wrong places, not to mention passengers and baggage, therefore it takes weeks for a major airline to get back to a regular schedule. Make whatever weather policy the ailine adopts known to the traveling public. Airports could also do a little more to prepare for and cope with stranded passengers, something the airlines can influence but not control.
    From a branding perspective, get more airplanes capable of operating in zero visibility and brag about it.

  • Dan Olson

    Personally I think they would be wise to collaboratively invest in the common area amenities to make lay overs more pleasant. I think that personality goes along way. I wish someone would make flying enjoyable again. Airline brands are dead, low air fare marches on. Poor design on the part of those CEOs.

  • David Taylor

    I don’t believe that airline brands are dead, but most are hurting. Southwest has a great brand and clear sense of who they are. The industry is in a down cycle that is driving out cost (sound familiar?), but whether their opportunity is with better weather preparedness, I couldn’t say. How would they do that?

  • Orris Long

    As any small business owner will tell you, it’s not as much about the product or service you offer your consumer, but the relationship you have with them. The new communication tools digital affords us, gives our industry the ability to have a more intimate dialogue with our consumers like never before.
    Poor weather conditions, delays, are excellent opportunities to win the respect of your consumer for a lifetime and create positive word of mouth for your brand.

    Ways to capitalize? Let them know you care and when you’ve done a good job, give them the tools necessary to tell their friends about it.

    British Airways has done this by creating an iphone application for travelers that sends up-to-date information on flight delays, arrivals etc that can be viewed easily by consumers on the go. Orbitz has taken it a step further with their TLC program which gives people the ability to get hotel/ car rental offers and check estimated security waits from their mobile phone.

  • Patrick Daykin

    As a past airliner working both gate and ramp ops, I can defintively say it is preparedness. All Passengers wanted was to know that the carrier was looking out for them, and this was accomplished through training of staff, prep work on delayed AP activities, providing simple amenities during irregular ops, and some basic listening to pax. It went a long way on the mutiple hour delay Friday nights.

  • Kristy Nolan

    Compassion, and working to find a solution. It seems (from my experience) that as long as Agents are working to reroute/rebook efficiently, Customers are much more patient. Keeping Customers updated on the latest situation also goes a long way. No one likes not knowing what is happening or what the plan is. Finally, Agents need to maintain composure and keep a sense of humor.

  • Scott Davies

    I suppose one way to approach maximizing the brand experience for passengers during irregular operations is to specifically identify what opportunity the passenger is losing by being delayed. Among two types of travelers; the business person is losing personal productivity and the casual traveler is losing what may be a once-a-year hiatus with his or her family. The compounding effect of missing connections to a final destination and lack of slack in the system for picking up delayed passengers could completely erase the travelers’ intended purpose for traveling.

    So. The best way to maximize a branded experience in these situations is to target-service the passengers lost opportunity. The business person most often needs a quiet out-of-the-way place, with full digital capability, to remain productive. The casual traveler needs family-wide support which may range from small children to elders.

    With the exception of providing premium club rooms to frequent flyers, airlines too often miss these opportunities to serve their clients needs when they simply leave passengers on their own to ‘forage’ about the concourse during delays. During events of less than severe delays, a supervisory-level gate agent could be mingling with the passengers in the gate area inquiring about needs and pointing passengers in the right direction. This would be a service akin to a concierge in a hotel. This simple technique would provide a win-win for both the airline and the passenger. The airline would incur very little additional cost by making a supervising agent available. The passengers would get the individual attention they require for minimizing their lost opportunities.

    Obviously, events of severe delays would require larger measures. It is during these events that airlines must incur greater costs if they care to retain a branded service. Here we are getting into restaurant and hotel vouchers and all the costs associated with rebooking. Unfortunately, most airlines choose to stick to the letter of the law of the carriage agreement which passengers enter into simply through purchasing a ticket. This is where branding goes out the window; as airlines most often do what ever it takes to minimize the cost of severe delays. Maintaining a branded experience in this regime most often requires the expensing of good old fashioned money. Without this willingness, a branded experience suffers.

  • Oussama Salah

    Good Day
    One thing passengers hate is being kept out of the information loop. Once they are informed thay are very patient. Weather being something outside the control of an airline tends to make the airline somewhat less sensitive.
    Having worked for a low cost airline, keeping your passengers happy and enhancing your brand does not necessarily have to be very expensive. Simple acts are sufficient. Aways keep an agent at the gate area in order to keep the airline presence visible, talk to the passengers and answer their questions. Offer them beverages and snacks, try to keep them comfortable. This being a weather delay the effect is across all operators at the airport, hotel space may not be available to all affected passengers and rebooking is not an immediate solution.
    However, the airline should start planning how they are going to handle all their stranded passengers once conditions improve and communicate this to passengers and show flexibilty in case some of them require rebooking or change of destinations.

    All disruptions are expensive but they can be managed effectively to maximise the brand.

  • Duane Dupon

    Be honest with them. So often airlines just say the delays are because of air traffic congestion. Most times, it is a lie. Aircraft have not been designed to fly into severe thunderstorms or wind shear. Tell the passengers the truth, that aircraft are staying on the ground for their safety.

  • Rachel Farris

    Hi Shashank – I enjoy your blog and your views on the airline industry.
    One thing I’ve noticed is that the airlines have really stepped up their live animal cargo programs. The “pet friendly” airlines come to our transportation conventions and are listening to our needs & wants. I’ve blogged about Continental’s Pet Safe program ( ) and KLM’s Live Animal Pet Hotel ( ). We use both of those airlines extensively at the company I work for. I saw that JetBlue recently introduced their JetPaws program, too, as another airline monetizing the millions of people who want to travel and move around with their pets.

  • Lisa C. Clark

    What do we see as posted images when bad weather strikes the travel industry? Blankets and sleeping bags covering travelers on floors of public places. We see discomfort, fatigue, irritability, confusion, lateness, disappointment.

    Antidote? “Baby it’s cold outside! … But it’s warm and safe and dry and comfortable here in our facilities.” (See all those folks being served hot chocolate? Being offered the pillows and blankets that folks don’t get today in flight? Being provided lounge chairs if they’re older/infirm? See all those folks being *cared for*?)

    At these moments in-flight hospitality MUST become hospitality on the ground. And that most definitely does not currently show to the public.

    At these moments folks like empathy and personality, but they NEED action. And given all the cuts in personnel and services hitting every airline (my family member included), the public doesn’t expect airlines to come up with hospitality on the ground — and would be shocked if they did, IMO.

    A brand defines the character and beliefs and values of the people/products/services behind it. This level of care about people’s humanity as individuals is one missing piece currently in this industry — that’s supposed to be all about people.

  • Vicki Kunkel

    Better social media presence. Companies that have used sites like Twitter during PR challenges and corporate crisis have often been able to turn things around rather quickly. Unfortunately, most large companies still haven’t figured out how to EFFECTIVELY use social media sites, and they often do more harm than good when executed poorly.

  • R V Uma

    Dear Shashank

    The problem that i have about using ‘ personality’ as a brand flavor is that – personality as an attribute does not have a permanence aspect as thought before. There are more evidence around us to show that personality is becoming a fluid variable.
    Yes it can also be argued that given this isn’t it an opportunity for a brand therefore. But it will be restricted to forced ‘ actions’ which will remain just symbols. End of the day the person expected to deliver the flavor of your brand is a human being who has a personality. Therefore its like trying to live a forced attribute from the point of the deliverer( employee) who is the face of the brand. Also what is the extend of ‘ personality’ that can be distinctive property. Any other brand can appropriate it better >

    For instance Richard Branson Virgin, Mallya’s KF – somewhere driving ‘ personality’ element successfully converted to service properties . How much has this attributed to brand equity ? Is a question to be pondered.

  • Shashank Nigam

    Ted, I like the way you end your thoughts – brag about it! In fact, as you mentioned, if an airline can achieve complete transparency in communicating with the passengers, that’s something to brag about as well!

  • Subhashish Bhattacharya

    I agree with Ted and this year we are trying that out as an airport operator, Every half hour there is an all area announcement on the current wether and fog status and the expected time for the visibility to improve. It works !! As an airlines you may try doing the same

  • Shashank Nigam

    @Dan, Common area facilities are certainly a great idea. And this is where airports can play a good role. Just look at the facilities at the new JetBlue Terminal at JFK. I’m sure people wouldn’t mind getting delayed there as much.

    @David: You’re right about Southwest – they succeed since they are sure about who they are, and communicate this clearly to the customer. Isn’t that what good branding is all about, in its essence?

    @Orris, @David: I think dealing with externalities like inclement weather is a hidden opportunity for airlines. Most airlines falter in these conditions and those that can handle it well create loyal customers.

    As you mentioned, Orris, the relationship matters. And using the digital tools at their disposal is a great way to build the relationships – especially when customers have already adopted it. You’ve shared some good examples, like BA’s iPhone app and Orbitz. I’ve been a big proponent of using technology to build relationships as well, and I’m sure you’d enjoy reading some of my articles on the subject here:

  • Shashank Nigam

    Patrick, I couldn’t agree with you more! Perfect information is often more than enough to calm the nerves. Add to that some bit of understanding from the staff, and you’ll have understanding passengers too.

  • Shashank Nigam

    Kristy, a sense of humor certainly adds to the personality. In fact, agents should be given a little “airline joke book” to ease the atmosphere a little, don’t you think?

  • Shashank Nigam

    @Scott: Brilliant slicing & dicing of the issues at hand.

    Indeed, catering to specific target segments in case of a delay is the need of the day. But how much is too much, and how much is too little? What about costs?

    As for the concierge concept, I know that British Airways has an exclusive relationship with Quintessentially, and offers a Concierge for First Class Passengers in their Concorde room at Heathrow. Air New Zealand has 1 actual Concierge on board all of their long haul flights. I guess airlines affected by weather can do a mix of these two – have a crew member trained to help calm nerves when flights get delayed, and is able to relay the latest information to passengers.

    I feel just little bit of empathy can not just create a loyal customer, but also doesn’t cost too much!

  • Shashank Nigam

    @ Oussama, Duane: You hit the nail on the head. Transparent and truthful sharing of information is the core of building trust with the passengers. Trust over time builds loyalty, which then leads to greater $$.

  • Shashank Nigam

    Lisa, I’d love to hear what you meant by “action” when you said “At these moments folks like empathy and personality, but they NEED action”.

  • Shashank Nigam

    Vicki, you’re absolutely right in saying that more organizations should utilize social media. In fact, I’ve been a big proponent of this as well, and I’m sure you’d enjoy reading some of my articles on the topic here:

  • Shashank Nigam

    Good point Shubhashish. Airlines and airports must work hand-in-hand to ensure a better experience for the customers.

  • Robert Mark

    Let’s be serious folks. This is a good discussion item, but transferring the idea of treating customers decently into a front line strategy is not nearly so interesting to most of the airlines, other than Southwest and JetBlue. That’s why the Flyers Rights organization is still alive and kicking in Congress.

    The question is why don’t these carriers care enough about this to make it the focal point that we see at these other airlines? That might make for an interesting discussion.

  • Shashank Nigam

    @ Robert: You asked a great question: The question is why don’t these carriers care enough about this to make it the focal point that we see at these other airlines?

    I feel the issue here boils down to the management. Many of the key airline executives have a Finance or Operations background. And when these folks rise to the top, they’re think of an airline as being in the transport industry, rather than being in the service industry. Hence, the experience tends to be much closer to that of being on Greyhound, rather than at Ritz Clarton. See my point?

    And you see a huge difference in airlines that operate differently when it comes to the hiring process. JetBlue didn’t hire almost anyone who had previously worked with an airline. Ditto for Virgin America. And Southwest is very very choosy about its people too. The broth is as good as the cook isn’t it?

  • David Scotland

    One point that you are missing completely from your piece is that many issues are dependent on entities outside the airline. For instance, Ground Delay Programs. An air carrier has no idea when Air Traffic Control will lift a ground stop and the flight issued clearance to proceed. In order to get the passengers to their destination as quickly as possible, airlines typically load the plane and await clearance. This is uncomfortable for pax whom would rather wait in the departure lounge, but ultimately gets them to their destination quicker. With pax loaded, the aircraft can be pushed back quickly after given clearance. It is important to remember that clearances are not highly predictable or accurate. The airline is at the whim of ATC’s own decision making processes to deem it safe to allow an aircraft to depart to an airport experiencing abnormal weather.

    Next, when it comes to deicing protocols, while it varies by airport, many airport authorities provide deicing procedures or ground handlers supply this service. It would be impractical at many outstations for an airline to maintain their own deicing/winter ops equipment because the cost would be prohibitive for their limited service to the airport. When relying on the airport or ground handler to perform these functions, there is only so much pushing you can do. It is their operation to run as they please, no matter how much pressure you put on them. Along the same lines, runway snow removal is entirely up to the airport authority and outside the control of an airline. They can only depart once the airport has cleared the snow and deemed the runway safe for ops.

    In regards to hotel rooms for stranded passengers. One estimate from the weather issues that plagued the pacific NW and ORD over the past week and half states over 1 million people were effected. If we hypothesize (this will be grossly inaccurate) that 1/5 were required to spend a night at an airport, that would be 200,000 hotel stays. Say the airlines have an average negotiated rate of $55. That would equate $11m in hotel expenses for this one week period for all affected airlines. That is on top of the costs incurred for overtime wages to employees, cost to reposition crews, additional energy costs for ground equipment (more use) other equipment being used more, cost of lost revenue due to canceled reservations or inability for new customers to book flights as they are full with displaced passengers. The costs would be astronomical for a high turnover, low margin business. When you book an airline ticket it is with the understanding that the airline will make all efforts to get you to your final destination in as timely a fashion as possible or offer you a refund. It is specifically listed in all contracts of carriage that the times offered/listed/scheduled can not be guaranteed.

    Finally, I do agree that an airline must share as much information as possible and continually update customers even if no further information is available. Honesty and candor are crucial to gaining customer commitment and cooperation. It is always best to explain the situation and the choices the customers have, no matter how uncomfortable or displeasing they may be (such as take the delayed flight to the hub city as once there have more options, but may be stranded).

    It is important you look at all perspectives and working parts when analyzing a situation and you seemed to leave the airline perspective out of it.

  • Rachel Farris (

    @ Robert — It seems that only SW, JetBlue and also Virgin have capitalized on what “Millennials” are used to — excellent customer service and convenience, with price coming a close second. As boomers die off (or lose their spending money with the loss of their 401k’s), and the Millennials become more important, I would expect to see those other airlines, who are stuck in the rut of marketing and branding themselves to boomers (low fares at the expense of quality service) either evolve in those areas or become extinct.

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