How can an airline brand survive a disaster? Lessons from the Air France 447 crash

As many of you have probably heard on the news, Air France Flight 447, an Airbus A330-203 (A332), disappeared a couple of nights ago, flying to Paris (CDG) after departing Rio Di Janeiro (GIG). It’s the first fatal crash of the A330 since 1992, when the plane went into service. Right now as Air France, the Brazilian military and Airbus work to find out the  minimize the public relations damage that is caused by any crash, especially an unexplainable lost aircraft, there are lots of lessons to be learnt in how a leading airline brand should deal with disaster.

What Air France did well in the aftermath of the crash?

Though there are lots of people affected in the aftermath of an airplane crash, from the plane manufacturer to the air traffic controllers, priority must be given to the relatives of those lost in the accident. Air France as done a pretty decent job of this, despite not knowing where the plane was and the cause of the crash.

  1. Up-to date information was provided directly to the relatives, through dedicated phone lines, in French, Portugese and through international numbers. The media were advised not to call this number.
  2. AirFrance.com was changed to a graphic-less look to mourn for the crash, and instead of seeing a normal booking engine, visitors saw links to getting more information about the crash.
  3. Air France showed its empathetic side. About 100 professionally trained doctors and psychologists were made available to the relatives of those on the flight – over the phone, in France and in Rio. I’m sure this soothed some nerves and provided some comfort to the grieving.
  4. These measures demonstrated that the Air France was well-prepared for such an eventuality, and wasn’t acting in a unprofessional manner. In fact, the pschologists and doctors are part of a team of 4,000 volunteers trained to help in crises situations!

What could Air France have done (and other airlines can do)?

There are two more things I feel Air France could have done to augment the rest of its efforts.

  1. Use Twitter! I heard about the crash first on Twitter. I’m sure many others did as well. It’s a well-recognized medium of information transmission these days. Alaska Air recently updated its passengers of the disruptions caused by the volcanic eruptions recently using the tool. And given its real-time and viral nature, I’m sure releasing the latest information on Twitter would add wings to any airline’s efforts.
  2. Add a personality to the brand – don’t be faceless. Taking a leaf out of Rohit Bhargava’s book, in difficult times, people want to hear from and be comforted by a person, not a company. Many large corporations today tend to be faceless, and adding a dash of personality to the brand can go a long way. What do I mean?Richard Branson is the personality of Virgin, Tony Fernandes is the face of AirAsia and The Singapore Girl represents Singapore Airlines. And people relate to these “personalities” much more than they can to an airline. And that can come to the airline’s rescue in tough times.

What do you think? Though it’s a sad incident, how many marks would you give Air France for dealing with the situation professionally? Have they left much to be desired? Let’s discuss.

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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 37 comments
  • Cribamadu
    Reply

    Would not agree about Twitter. For spreading info it works great, but crisis situation is generally one-way communication. Airline says something when they have something to say. Twitter is both way communication and followers will not be satisfied when they will receive “At this moment all information we have is posted. Please wait for next announcments from our spokesperson” for the 10th time.

    • Shashank Nigam
      Reply

      @Crimbamadu: You’re right that in crises situation, it’s generally about one-way communication. But there are two scenarios I see Twitter being used.
      1) To enhance the 1-way communication. A feed can be generated from the Press Release page, which automatically sends a tweet with the update. This can then be proliferated by other Twitter users, hence adding wings to the communication
      2) We can bring in a bit of two-way communication. Involving the community won’t harm, but actually add a personal touch to the whole situation, don’t you think?

  • Carter
    Reply

    As a veteran of working multiple air disasters from a company point of view, I did think that from the outside AF did a laudable job in getting things set up. What I think is always difficult is ensuring that friends and relatives get the immediate care and respect that they deserve. At the same time isolating your internal systems on specific flightss is also essential to prevent any sort of press leak on names and nationalities. No one wants to hear that their loved one has perished in a plane crash from a media outlet.

    On the “dark site”- where you tone down your web prescence to fit the sombre mood. I think AF took too long to execute this. Yes they did it, but I think a few hours too late in my experience.

    They did get the phone numbers for overseas assistance onto the site and into the media quickly. Their first press conference was more detailed and longer than most that you would see especially for a US carrier.

    What was interested to me is that PR is now generally handled collectively at the regional level in SkyTeam. One of the major issues with moving it back to the carrier corporate level is the need to create press releases in the pertinent languages for the market(s) affected by the tradgedy. That came hours later by my observation, as I was subscribed through their PR department to get them.

    As to the questions of Twitter- I agree with you completely. No, the interesting questions here is what is la langue de preference de Twitter? I personally participate in Twitter in three languages, but generally on diffierent accounts. Would the twitter community have been pleased with french tweets only? Should they tweet in the main languages of the markets impacted? Just curious your thoughts.

  • airfare deal
    Reply

    I think Air France did very well..and thanks for very interesting article

  • David Lamb
    Reply

    Shashank,

    Social communication sites are not the appropriate venue for dissemination of information pertaining to an event in which there is loss of life. Two way communication is absolutely unnecessary and actually can be harmful, as then airline staff would be required to man and to answer these blogs (lest they be accused of not answering them – which is PR madness). The airline has a duty: To maintain the privacy of the families who have been devastated by these events as well as to maintain the integrity of the brand.

    In the case of Air France, it would seem that the response that I have seen to date has been quite good. The only misstep I believe was made was the comment made by the CEO of the airline, in which he said that lighting may have been the cause of the accident. This was an extremely unwise thing to say for two reasons: 1) Speculation about what happened, especially in this case in which it is nearly impossible to know what happened to the aircraft, is almost always wrong. 2) As a result of that statement, people may be left with the impression that lightning could bring down a commercial airliner, which may cause additional anxiety to people flying or even cause people not to travel. As we all are aware, lighting alone cannot bring down a commercial aircraft in the air and would not have caused a sudden event, one in which the crew would not be able to call ATC and advise of an incident.

    There are two different groups who require information about the post accident investigation: a) Families and b) everybody else. The normal, and correct, method is to post information for public consumption on the website. The method for families is a call center for support, services vary depending upon the time forward from the event, the nature of the event itself and the resources that the airline dedicates to provide direct support to the families. The more the better.

    As for the brand, the brand will survive just fine as long as the procedures are followed and the people who handle the families and the press are properly trained and supported. It is when we get into speculation and posturing that the brand could suffer. For the moment, I think Air France will be just fine.

  • Rupam
    Reply

    Well i feel that Air France has been very open in accepting the disaster but now the team needs to work very hard to find the reason of this disaster and then ensuring that the true reason are published. Also the entire team (Airbus and Air France) have a very difficult task of re-establishing the brand and ensuring that the passengers feel SAFE while flying with them.

  • Peter Mooney
    Reply

    Is this really an appropriate discussion? Can we please hold off on the “Add a personality to the brand – don’t be faceless” type advice when they haven’t even found physical evidence of the aircraft going down yet? How can you ask people to comment on how Air France dealt with the situation when we don’t even know what the “situation” is yet?

    I’m sure Air France will survive this tragedy given people know of their huge professionalism, and I have to question the appropriateness of asking people to give Air France marks for dealing with the incident. Let’s not discuss!

    Rgds,

    Peter

  • Guido Vitali
    Reply

    Hi there, have a look to the former Swissair MD11 crash on Newfoundland, it is still a case presented as masterpiece of corporate communication, passengers relatives handling and overall crisis management example….nothing new under the sun….still lessons to be learned, over and over again….

  • Pierre à PORTA
    Reply

    An airline brand can survive a crash providing the communication about it is clear. Trying to hide any information may be contre productive. Swissair had three crashes (Caravelle, Convair Coronado, Douglas DC8) and was still among the best quoted airline. The final crash of SR111 just brought more pressure to a weak management having chosen a wrong strategy

  • John Kosak
    Reply

    I think it’s way too early to review Air France’s performance as we’ve barely begun to investigate the actual event. Once we understand more about the event we might be better able to review Air France’s actions.

  • Nicola Santacroce
    Reply

    I think so too that it is way too early. Air France will survive but going through a lot of pain: they have already announced in France that is the the worst disaster in French history. I can’t recall anything similar in Aviation history where a plane crashes mysteriously in the middle of the Atlantic and debris is scattered over 200 miles of 2000-4000 m deep ocean.
    There are a lot of challenges are are going to be faced in the next months and possibly years.
    I read on “Le Monde” that a source close to the investigators said that the plane was going too fast in a violent storm.
    We are talking about a pilot with 11,000 flight hours.
    Airbus will need to scratch their heads too because my feeling is that this accident might reveal design defects of the A330 and A340.

  • Ron Ottervanger
    Reply

    It is clear that it is too early to make any assessment of the causes of the disaster. I won’t speculate about that. However an assessment of how Air France dealt with the situation is very well possible. There the first impression is crucial. A quick response, with clear information and honest answers is very important in dealing with the fear and anger of those involved.

    The Idea to “add a person to the brand”, or, in this case, add a person to Air France handling this disaster, is very interesting. It would be interesting to discuss how you can plan such a reaction, for a situation that rarely happens and you hope even will never happen.

  • Carter
    Reply

    I disagree with you, John. As someone who has planned, initiated, and executed airline CARE plans, it is never too early to talk about how you did on the checklist. A loss of a flight is a serious and sombre shock for passenger, the company, and the friends and family of passengers and crew. Companies should have a well-rehearsed checklist to the first 8-12-24-36 hours of the crisis. So I don’t think it is too early to take a look at how well they handled the initial response to the situation.

    I would take you back to a few examples of how NOT to do it that tore my heart out. One of those being TWA 800 (the second).

    I also think that some of the latest disasters post 9/11 have not taken place in the context of the new web 2.0 world. In the last airline I helped build we did take that into account a crisis in the new web frontier. If you are going to be savvy enough to use viral adverts, twitter, youtube, for marketing- then we had to be equally aware that we needed to have content that was both adequate, sensitive, and responsive.

    In our global world, there is also the question of providing language support if you engage in two-way communication. AF is an interesting study of this, as it is arguably Portugues and French that were the primary languages. Should others be required. What is the official language or social networking? Linkedin caters to several languages, and Twitter caters to some Asian dialects as well. But take a hypothetical a Chinese flight crashes in Japan. What should the carrier do in social networking, especially since they never generally engage in it?

  • Dr. Vivek Sahi
    Reply

    I have a question…..you are talking about dealing with one type of disaster….what about the other that has gone largly unnoticed ? I am talking about the poor treatment of Indians or rather the racial discrimination of Indians that has been shown by Air France on 2 seperate occassions in the time span of 7-8 days ? One thing is for sure – throwing 350 Euro discount vouchers is not going stop people suing them in court – So how are they gonna deal with this – its a TARNISH on their image – I know for sure that I`m never going to fly Air France ever…..

  • Geraldine Cruz
    Reply

    In my humble opinion, the fact that this happened within the last 5 days makes it premature to assess business lessons from the disaster. People were killed, and their families and loved ones are grieving. The focus should be on compassion and respect for them. Think of what it would have been like if we (and I mean that in the collective sense) were opining over business or security strategies 5 days after 9/11. We are humans first.

  • Julie Steadman
    Reply

    Adding a personality to the brand ?? This is a tradegy. People do not want to see personalities. Too many marketing people spoil the broth……

  • Allan Lynch
    Reply

    I whole-heartedly disagree with you about the airline using Twitter to dispense news about the crash. An airline crash and loss of hundreds of lives is too monumental an event to toss it out into the world in 140 characters. To throw out the crash news in this manner would be akin to announcing a new bar opening.

    140 characters, sent out in the same format that others are telling me what they had for lunch, is beyond disrespectful and shallow. It’s flippant.

    It is not like those of us in the western world don’t have a myriad of information sources. There are cable news networks 24/7, there is radio, there is the internet, there are cell phones. Some events are too great and too serious to be flipped off in this manner. If it was important enough for you to know about immediately, someone would have reached you directly.

    But what difference does it make to most of us if we heard 10 minutes after the event or 30 minutes or within the hour? It’s not going to have helped save any of those lives. And what do you learn with Twitter? A plane is missing. When I heard I figured it was down, but there was no confirmation of that for some time. Immediate news is not always accurate news and that causes more pain for those left on the ground wondering and worrying.

  • David Lamb
    Reply

    Carter – to take your comment one step further regarding when to talk about how you did on the “checklist”. While it is never too early to talk about how the checklist has been performed, I believe it must be a continuous discussion during and after the crisis. It is important, both for the airline and the individuals involved in the response, to talk about both what is going right and wrong, but more importantly, to check on the mental and physical well being of the people managing the response. In my training in CARE (actually I went through ASSIST), it was important to monitor the people conducting the response as it was to conduct the response itself. Sometimes, people don’t cope well and as a result, they don’t do or say the right thing and that can cause as much trouble as a step left out of the process (which can also happen). Taking care of ourselves and our team during the response is extremely important, as if someone can’t cope or if someone is having a difficult time, they need as much help as the people we are helping.

    Regarding your comment about languages, I strongly believe that there should be language qualified staff to manage the languages of the passengers and the families. In the event that qualified staff do not exist, then interpreters must be used. However, if intepreters are used, then they should go through the same training as the staff so that they understand the meaning behind what they are translating and not just translate the person literally. As one who speaks four languages, I can tell you that there are distinct nuances within those languages and if one doesn’t understand the context, that can do more damage than having no translator at all.

    As I have said, social networking has no place in airline accident response, since it is generally speaking a one-way communication to everyone except the families of those affected by the accident. In that respect, two way communication is necessary and therefore the aspects of social networking that were raised by Shashank in the original posting are not germane, nor are they appropriate.

    Finally, if the post accident process is managed correctly, the brand will not only survive, it will become more respected. The SR111 response is still today the gold standard in terms of how post accident response is managed and while Swissair did not survive as a company, it’s brand today still exists as an example of quality and precision. That luckily carried over to Swiss and as a result (with a little help from LH), they are the Phoenix that rose from the ashes of Swissair.

  • Oussama Salah
    Reply

    No matter how much we prepare and practice nothing prepares an airline for the real thing, a response to a disaster. Air France had a problem, no idea of where and how this crash happened. However, they rose to the occaision by showing the humane side of a large corporation.
    Air France catered for those who were really and directly affected. As for the use of Twitter and other social media engines would have not added value to the effort of offering solace and comfort to the bereaved next of kin and friends. It might have provided information to the general public and in this case there was nnot much to offer. To use Twitter for promotions and disruptions is one thing but develop Emergency Response in a major way on Twitter is another. I don’t think an air disaster is the appropriate time to experiment.
    On the whole Air France did and continues to do the right thing and I hope will continue to do this until such time enough is known to provide those affcted with appropriate closure.
    Kudos to Air France for doing the right thing and preventing a media circus

  • Nathaniel Forbes
    Reply

    Do you have a screen shot of the AF no-graphics web site? It appears to have been taken down by now. Thanks. Nathaniel Forbes
    http://www.linkedin.com/in/nathanielforbes

  • Kunal (Bony) Sharma
    Reply

    Air France has done an excellent job of controlling the media circus and taking care of the relatives of the victims.
    As a safe and high operational std airline they will survive the crash and will not got labeled an unsafe airline.
    It was excellent to see the cheap “TERRORIST ANGLE” blame was not used to use time to create a media spin.
    AF remained honest and clear on the info.

  • Randall Hensley
    Reply

    I think they’ve done a good job of showing empathy and humanity in the wake of the disaster. They also have a bit of an advantage in that the news is intermittent, with it being strung out over a two-week period. It is truly sad, as most of these disasters are.

    However, I feel that the Concorde accident did more immediate and long-term damage to the brand. It was sudden, highly visible, and had huge impact on not only the Air France brand, but also British Airways. It was also rather demoralizing internally [ maybe even nationally ] since they had taken so much pride in the Concorde. [ And they should’ve realized that the planes were getting too old. ]

    The Air France brand will survive, as it did before, but not without a price.

    Just my thoughts,

  • Theo Priestley
    Reply

    think you’ll find there was a lot of information not disclosed to the press for obvious reasons. Do you really think treating an air disaster as a source of information on Twitter is the really sensitive option for a major company ?

  • David Parker Brown
    Reply

    It is difficult to imagine being on a plane during a crash. Even though their experience is horrid, it is at least short. The surviving family and friends are left with the pain, the heartache, and the not knowing for hours, days, years, and maybe forever.

    I am sure the Air France (and really Airbus) brand has been damaged from this, but most likely only short term. No airline wants to lose passengers and a dedicated crew and I think Air France’s compassion is showing, which is great.

    I don’t know if Twitter would have been an appropriate tool in this case. Trying to convey remorse and important details of the accident with 140 characters would be hard and almost insulting.
    Hopefully we won’t have to go through this again anytime soon, but if we do we can only hope airlines will learn some lessons from Air France.

    David
    The Airline Blog

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    Reply

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    Reply

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    Reply

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    Reply

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    Reply

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    Reply

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    Reply

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