Accidents & Incidents: How Airline Crisis Communications Should Differentiate and Tackle Them

Airlines are very serious when it comes to definitions. Not only because of legal concerns but also because different levels of severity involve a different set of protocols and crisis communications procedures when it comes to handling:

  • an aircraft accident (e.g. crashes, crash landings, disappearances) versus
  • an aircraft incident (e.g. emergency landings, bird strikes, skidding off runway).

Media and the general public, however, do not distinguish as clearly when reporting or engaging with stories about an aircraft accident or incident. Any information or news that concerns safety interests the public and therefore the media.

Given this context, airlines are especially vulnerable to becoming fodder for media stories and topics of general discussion, for two reasons:

  1. A high number of lives are at stake whenever a passenger aircraft takes off, is flying, or lands on a runway.
  2. Today, any fault or lapse can be picked up very quickly by any bystander and shared with a large audience online. For instance, people can readily pick up distress codes even before the airlines do, as in the case of Ethiopian Airlines’ hijack incident in 2014. Once enough interest is generated, media will quickly jump at breaking the story to an even bigger audience.

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Between 2010 and 2015, there have been several airline accidents and incidents  where social media played a big role in breaking or fuelling the stories, often to the dismay of the airlines involved. To name a few:

  • Qantas QF32 Engine Failure, 4 November 2010 (no casualties)
    This is a classic case where speculations can run amok in the absence of an authoritative voice. On 4 November 2010, QF32 had an engine failure after taking off. Qantas senior management, however, became aware of this only when its share price “started to collapse” as a result of rumours of a plane crash on Twitter. These were all happening while the aircraft was still flying back to safety.
  • Ethiopian Airlines ET702 Hijack to Geneva, 17 February 2014 (no casualties)
    This was the first time an airline incident received real-time blow-by-blow coverage on social media with voice recordings between ATC and the hijacker, even before the aircraft landed. It all started in an aviation forum where someone posted that ET702’s transponder had been set to “7500”, the international code for hijack.
  • TransAsia GE 235 Crash, 4 February 2015 (43 dead)
    The story broke on social media when an eyewitness uploaded dramatic footage of the airplane crashing in the river, captured from the dash camera of her car .
  • Air Canada Flight 624 Crash, 28 March 2015 (no casualties) 
    News of the plane crash first broke on Twitter after people noticed power outages at the airport. Shortly after, an audio of the emergency dispatch was released by a netizen on Twitter, even before the investigation was concluded.

Most of the times, the concerned airlines have been tagged in the online conversations from the very start. However, they often fail to establish an active presence in verifying or directing the information flow. In terms of crisis, there are a few things that airlines must bear in mind:

Five Rules of Effective Crisis Communications:

  1. Acknowledge as quickly as you can that you know something has gone wrong.
  2. Establish official channels / pages where people can regularly seek updated information.
  3. Quickly get hold of accurate information and share it transparently, without corporate speak or legalese.
  4. Keep an eye out for rumours and quash them sooner than later.
  5. Follow-up is critical. A single, quick statement within two minutes is useless unless you follow-up regularly with updates, displaying your commitment to the cause.

Accidents and incidents should initially be both treated the same i.e. in terms of how quickly they’re tackled online. That said, they will differ in terms of the media plan and follow-ups. For example, accidents require more intensive media management plan versus incidents where too much publicity would be bad for the brand. The airline Crisis Communications Quarterly Report addresses this in more detail, including stakeholder impact assessment and the recovery trajectory, using 10-15 of the most recent case studies from 2015.

Incidents can be blown out of proportion through social media, and airlines must wake up to this reality. Be it an accident or incident, airlines need to be able to quickly establish themselves as the authoritative source of information, especially in this “free-for-all” age where they are unlikely to be the first source of information.


  • Download this article (PDF, 231KB)
  • Download the latest “SimpliFlying Airline Crisis Guide” – An overview of 6 types of airlines crises concerning social media, including real-world case studies from recent years.
  • Preview Crisis Communications Quarterly Report – An in-depth report of the 15 most important airline crises and disruptions from the latest quarter, assessing how they were handled, and how they could have been handled better.
Li Guen

Li Guen

Head of Communications and Marketing at SimpliFlying
Li Guen heads the communications and marketing functions at SimpliFlying where she drives corporate branding efforts and industry research initiatives. Prior to this, Li Guen was at Weber Shandwick working with clients including Rolls-Royce, Changi Airport Group and P&G.In her free time, Li Guen likes trekking mountains in Asia. You can tweet her at @SimpliGuen or email her at guen@simpliflying.com.
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