Lessons in Disruption Management from the #LionAirDelay Incident

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Kinny Cheng, an aviation enthusiast, and a passenger experience (#PaxEx) consultant for the commercial aviation industry. Kinny lives and breathes social media and is an activist in the aviation (as @9VSKA) and IT&T (as @Kinny) spaces on Twitter. He has also freelanced for various industry-related websites.

Last week, Indonesia’s Lion Air experienced a paralysis of its network, which caused flights throughout its domestic and international networks to be severely delayed. It all, apparently, began with a number of aircraft-on-ground (AOG) incidents leading to cascading delays operating in-and-out of its Jakarta hub — and a popular Twitter hashtag #LionAirDelay.

In-between, of course, there was the onslaught of passengers railing against the airline. While flight delays may be commonplace at Lion Air, this particular incident was anything but.

News finally breaks on Twitter (in English)

Some time just after 10pm Jakarta local time on 19 February, nearly 24 hours after the situation slowly began, aviation consultant Gerry Soejatman — who is also based in Jakarta — posted the following on Twitter:

There had been no significant mention of the subject on Twitter until this point, as virtually all prior mentions were in Bahasa, the primary dialect used in Indonesia. This was also when the hashtag #LionAirDelay began to trend on Twitter.

Out of control #LionAirDelay

A quick look-up of the #LionAirDelay hashtag on Twitter will easily bring up a long list of tweets containing comments, rants, and even memes — all in reference to Lion Air’s utter incompetence in its handling of the overall situation. Like most travel disruption experiences, the inability of an airline to move passengers along their way, in a timely manner, is what fuels frustrations. Furthermore, a lack of good communication can greatly exacerbate a deteriorating situation, possibly to a point that can bring the worst out of people. According to some of Gerry’s tweets:

As demonstrated, the importance of selecting a universally-recognised language for message delivery cannot be underestimated — or any kind of message delivery, especially in the case of Lion Air.

Lion Air: Social media?

To date, Lion Air has never officially announced any form of social media participation. But… Googling “Lion Air Twitter” came up with three different Twitter accounts, all with seemingly-legitimate handles:

  • @OfficialLionAir: 638 tweets 2,446 followers, last updated 26 February 2015.
  • @LionAirID: 423 tweets, 53,819 followers, last updated 01 October 2014.
  • @LionAirIndo: 287 tweets, 11,416 followers, last updated 10 July 2014.

 Are any of these official? Judging by the rate of tweets and their content, the @OfficialLionAir account was the most likely candidate. During the disruption period, several related tweets were posted, including two apologies and several providing general informational updates. But considering the severity of the disruption, the level of activity was disappointingly low.

On 26 February, the Twitter account had disappeared, most likely deleted by its owner. Prior to the deletion, a final tweet was posted: “Tweeps dalam penerbangan kalian pilih mana? Kena delay atau ngga pernah sampai 🙂 selamat malam. Salam #LIONAIR ” …which translates to: “Tweeps, when it comes to flying which one do you choose? Being delayed or never to arrive at all? Good night. #LIONAIR”

A disgruntled employee? Or, maybe, just not-so-official a Twitter account after all? Locating Lion Air’s Facebook account proved even more difficult. Googling:

All three Facebook pages contained official Lion Air content — but only the last one remained up-to-date and had relevant informational posts throughout the time of the disruption. At no time did the airline engage with any of the commenters, which was not surprising given the reality of the disruption situation. The difficulty in locating the correct Facebook page, however, was very troubling. 

Selective ignorance is not an excuse

Ambiguity is Lion Air’s biggest enemy on social media. Unless a person knows exactly how and what to look for, efforts towards correctly identifying an official account can prove futile — as previously demonstrated. What was more interesting is how seemingly comical their social media efforts have become, especially when Lion Air pointed out on one of their official Facebook pages how the @OfficialLionAir Twitter account is not actually official. Besides multiple Facebook pages being a flaw in social media strategy, allowing unknown forces to command the voice of your organisation’s brand is far worser.

That last tweet posted on the now-deleted @OfficialLionAir account, sarcasm or not, is the perfect example of the damage 140 keystrokes can possibly do to a brand. Therefore, it is also important to know how to protect a brand on social media, especially more so in places where its presence clearly should not be.

Doing things better

However, in addition to the various disruption management techniques (or lack of) exercised during this incident, the following social media centric options could help towards minimising fallout, or even complement efforts in alleviating a developing situation:

  • Complement ground agent observations with relevant keyword and hashtag searches. These posts paint a clearer picture of the current situation and offer greater insight towards devising possible solutions and contingency plans. A simple search for tweets containing “@OfficialLionAir” brings up countless posts.
  • At no time was the #LionAirDelay hashtag referred to. Literally, it may possess negative connotations, resulting in a possible knee-jerk response of “avoid at all costs”. But there is no shame in embracing the truth and showing acceptance.
  • Directly engaging selected comments and enquiries can assist with alleviating possible situations. Improvise by replying to a group of posts on a similar topic or question, timely, at one hit, and focusing on the ones which take precedence and/or priority in importance. Demonstrating a willingness to help and assist can create an attitude of greater understanding — or even a forgiving one — when a situation turns sour.
  • If an enquiry warrants further discussion, move it to a non-public channel and maintain an appropriate level of dialogue. In most cases, taking it one further step can lead to a solution far more quickly, rather than just bouncing replies between one another.

The scenes at Soekarno-Hatta could have been far less volatile and physically resource-straining if Lion Air chose to use social media more proactively. If information was more frequently shared about the status of various flights, it would have allowed passengers to make an informed decision on whether to go to the airport, lessening the burden on front-line personnel, leading to better allocation of resources.

But some things may never change

The news of Lion Air’s massive delays throughout its network did not even make international headlines, unlike the weather-related disruptions in Europe and the U.S. which were considered quite major. In other words, the only people who had to deal with #LionAirDelay were those who fly with Lion Air on a routine basis, mostly knowing what to expect. Firdaus Hashim, air transport reporter for Flightglobal, makes this very concise remark:  

Ironically, thanks to the consistently-poorer passenger experience from Lion Air, the majority of the victims of this disruption will fly with this airline again sometime in the future — not because they do not have a choice, but because it is probably the only way to fly (due to their extensive network, a competitive advantage).

With that said, the opportunity of implementing the aforementioned measures to improve communications with passengers, and their service experience with the airline, is still on the table. In an age where people are becoming far more connected than ever before, the odds are building against any organisation choosing to turn a blind eye to eventuality.

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