How airline brands can be shielded from TSA and airport security measures in the aftermath of Northwest flight 253 terrorist plot

I bet anyone who’s got anything to do with flying is now well aware of the incident that happened on-board Northwest Flight 253 over Christmas, where a bomb was almost set off.

Reading through my airline branding lense I could tell the confusion the event was causing among travelers, especially in this peak travel season. And this went through the roof when FAA/TSA came up with knee-jerk measures to beef-up security on US-bound flights.

It’s difficult for most passengers to distinguish whether the inconvenience they’re being put through is something the airline has initiated or is it something beyond their control. These are what I called Brand eXternalities in my 6X model – where the customer has the tendency of forming an impression about the brand, even when the events are beyond the airline’s jurisdiction. At this time, the airline needs to ensure that it nullifies any adverse impact on the brand. Here’s how.

Prepare for the confusion – It will arise, even for Finnair!

I was browsing through Airliners.net the day after the incident and chanced upon an interesting comment. Take a look:

Finnair Security Measures

When Finnaviation shared what FAA sent to Finnair, someone else thought that it was Finnair that was coming up with these measures and condemned the airline. This sort of confusion is very common – especially since the traveler is already anxious.

Airlines should be prepared for such happenings even if they’ve not been directly related to the incident. In this case, Finnair passengers flying to the US are just as much affected as those traveling on China Southern from Singapore to Los Angeles via Shanghai. The least the airline can do is to provide clarification.

Clarify, Clarify, Clarify

Following the news of the Northwest incident, KLM’s UK Twitter account was repeatedly calming nerves and clarifying that even though the Northwest flight was code-shared with KLM, it wasn’t a KLM plane that was involved in the incident.

KLM Twitter Northwest

When Delta, KLM, AirFrance and Northwest are all somehow involved, it is bound to cause confusion. And instead of just issuing press releases, it makes a lot of sense for airlines to update the customers through a medium they use!

KLM’s Twitter account is a great example. Similarly, such updates could have been sent out as an SMS to frequent fliers on the Amsterdam-Detroit route. If the airline has a Facebook page or YouTube presence, then similar messages can be released there too. The point is the ensure that there is as little confusion as possible, and the airline brand will not suffer as dramatically.

Don’t just impose – explain measures too

Recently, my Twitter friend Oussama Salah traveled to Detriot and was picked out for a thorough search, once again.  This is what Oussama shared in a recent blog post:

Oussama Salah quote

The TSA agent explained to that it was the airline that imposed this procedure on him, and in London, the security agent even joked about it. Similarly, the airline can also explain that some of the stringent security measures are beyond their control. And it’s not so difficult to do!

When I was once flying Singapore Airlines, I was requested not to use my headphones while landing because if there’s an emergency, I wouldn’t be able to hear the instructions. I could reason with that explanation and cooperated willingly. This is different from imposing orders on to passengers. Which brings me on to my last point.

Don’t lose the human in you

As opposed to being professional and aloof, the airline staff can also be trained to deal with passengers with warmth. What that means is to have a conversation, and treat the customer humanly, both in-person and through the media. For example, online, it is not just about just broadcast a message and issuing a press release. It is important to listen to customers’ concerns, and then respond.

After the Northwest incident, there were lots of myths flying around the media – security in Europe is lax, why was the person allowed on-board, why couldn’t the security system detect the explosive, and many others. And it wasn’t an airline, but a good friend of mine, Steve Frishling who came up with an article that aimed to distinguish the myths from the facts. This is an article that should be placed prominently on the websites of Delta Airlines, Northwest Airlines and KLM-AirFrance, since they all had an active flight number relating to the incident. And it addresses the concerns of a lot of their passengers.

These are just some of the steps airlines can take to ensure that externalities like heightened security measures do not deteriorate the brand itself. What else do you think an airline can do in times like these to calm nerves? Have you had an experience where an airline dealt with this brilliantly? Please do share with us in the comments and on Twitter.

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Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying and a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought-leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior aviation executives globally, from Chile to Canada and from Sydney to San Francisco. Shashank's perspectives have found their way into major media outlets, including CNN Travel, CNBC, MSNBC, Bloomberg UTV, Mashable and in leading publications like Airline Business, ATW, Aviation Week, and others. Shashank studied Information Systems Management and Business Management at Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University. Hailing from India, he splits his time between Singapore and Vancouver, among other cities.
Shashank Nigam
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Showing 9 comments
  • Martin Rottler
    Reply

    How can airlines be shielded from these measures? Be human, and recognize that we passengers are going to take time to get used to these things. Empower your employees to make decisions that might not fall within the rules, but are “right.”

    Reach out to passengers using all available media, and drop the revenue-enhancements for international flights–waive bag fees, provide a free drink, etc. Air Canada is waiving bag fees. Other airlines should follow.

  • mackenziemorgan
    Reply

    I agree with your suggestions to minimise the impact on the airline from these ludicrous “security rules”, the problem I foresee is that many FAs will just revert into a, just following orders shell and mindlessly impose the regulations without any thought flexibility. That is where the airlines will suffer, I hope Cabin Directors are more visible in Economy (coach) than I have seen on previous long-haul flights. They need to be mentoring their Teams during the last hour into the States.

    I hope that other regulator authorities are more considered in their response to this incident, I am not looki9ng forward to travelling in the new year!

  • oussama
    Reply

    I understand that all these measures are more stressful to FAs than to passengers, after all they have to work on airplanes almost everyday. To ask US carriers FAs to be warm to passengers is actually asking a lot. They were not so warm pre the incident and I just can not see it happen post the incident. Considering the second flight incident that happened on the 27th on the same flight to Detroit, when a Nigerian was isolated and handed to the FBI for staying too long in the toilet. It turns out he was actually sick.
    FAs on US carriers will be further aloof, galleys will be a no passenger zones and I would not be surprised if they start a toilet watch, and time each passenger's stay.

    Even if the TSA relaxes their draconian measures US carriers FAs will not be any warmer. But then the Legacy Airlines in the US never really paid attention about their brand.

    • simpliflying
      Reply

      Though sadly, I'd agree with most of your observations. The FAs would appear
      more like psuedo-police officers on US airlines due to these measures. Which
      doesn't help the airline brand at all. Sad, but true.

      However, I still wonder – if FAs at Emirates, Cathay Pacific or Singapore
      Airlines can still deal with things in a friendly manner, why can't we
      expect the same from the Americans?

      • oussama
        Reply

        I am sure they can. FAs on a few LCCs exhibit exceptional warmth and friendliness. The issue here is company directives to employees. I guess 9/11 might have had a greater impact on the psyche of airlines and flying crew than we all think being outside the USA.

  • hmasurg
    Reply

    Airlines will continue to get their passengers and revenue, after all we have been through worse situations and yet air travel remains healthy (despite the economoc downturns). Sadly, profiling seems inevitible and more strictt and hence less friendly staff will be more common place. Airlines do have a role in this and can soften the blow for thier “customers” and hence for themselves and this is where professional, truely world class airlines will shine through.

  • hmasurg
    Reply

    Airlines will continue to get their passengers and revenue, after all we have been through worse situations and yet air travel remains healthy (despite the economoc downturns). Sadly, profiling seems inevitible and more strictt and hence less friendly staff will be more common place. Airlines do have a role in this and can soften the blow for thier “customers” and hence for themselves and this is where professional, truely world class airlines will shine through.

  • Zimbabalouie
    Reply

    Just don't fly! In intra continental travel there are trains, busses, cars and even beast of burden. Between continents there are ships, phones, and video links. Seens to me that there is no reason to fly that can't be overcome by other means.

    I will not fly within the US. If I feel like traveling to a destination that I can't get to by boat, train, or car then a phone call or trvel book will sufffice.

  • Tim Kern, CAM
    Reply

    The way to truly solve the problem would be to put security back on the airlines.

    Then anyone could pay and wait as much and as long as he or she wanted to. Any delays or costs would have to be truly justified, instead watching of the idiotic, ineffective, expensive show the TSA puts on for all of us, every day.

    Just how would staying seated longer have deterred what happened on Christmas? On the other hand, when the guy's own father warns authorities in advance and the authorities choose to ignore this (and other!) warnings — what good is inconveniencing legitimate passengers even more going to do?

    The TSA is indeed “Killing Us an Hour at a Time.” http://mises.org/daily/2186

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