Behind the scenes: How Brussels Airlines rose to the task and SWISS helped after Brussels attacks

Every dark cloud has a silver lining. At 6pm on Good Friday, one could hear a round of applause and cheering coming from a large room at Brussels Airlines headquarters in Belgium. A team of airline staff had just managed to answer all questions on the airline’s Facebook stream, which had ballooned in the aftermath of the Brussels attacks. The team had managed to reply to over 12,000 incoming queries in the past week.


Brussels attacks: Not business as usual

When I first met Claudia Tluk this January at a SimpliFlying workshop in Geneva, I remember her telling me that she’s the sole person handling social media at Brussels Airlines. Sometimes, she was complemented by one more person from the call center. And they did a fine job together of helping passengers out, as I realized last April. But nothing could have prepared them for the aftermath of the Brussels attacks.

When Claudia first received the news of the bombs, most people thought it was a hoax, and they deal with them a couple of times a year. But then she saw the images circulating on Twitter and immediately rushed to the office to take charge.

Typically, the airline received less than 300 queries via social media. On Tuesday, the day of the attacks, they handled 2700 requests. Over 4000 on Wednesday, and 5000 on Thursday!

That’s certainly not the volume that two people can handle. So Claudia initially reached to her colleagues in Marketing and Digital teams – young, social media savvy people – to help her out. She managed to get a room for five people and got down to work.

However, very soon, the volume of incoming requests on social media swelled to unprecedented levels. At that time, Claudia started receiving offers of help from other departments too, since the airline had shut down operations and people were on standby. Soon, she managed to get a team of over 45 people together, from all departments and of all ages and experience, to help her out.

“We had volunteers from all departments – pilots were answering tweets, the legal team was replying to Facebook messages and cabin crew engaging in many languages.”

Since 70% of the queries were on two or three key issues, like re-booking and when flights will be re-starting, the team created templates of answers in English, French and Dutch. These templates were then used by airline staff without much experience on social media to answer passenger queries promptly. Cabin crew who spoke multiple languages further translated these into Italian, German and Spanish as the need arose.

Staff of all ages, from multiple departments, chipped in. Those who had never used Facebook or Twitter were learning by diving into the deep end of the social media stream. While the newly-formed team was handling a lot of queries, they were working from 8am till midnight daily and were exhausted. Brussels Airlines needed help for overnight queries, which arrived from the Swiss.

An unlikely story of collaboration among airlines

Nadja Griehl, the social media manager at SWISS International Airlines in Zurich had reached out to Claudia after the attacks, asking if her team can be of any help. During the SimpliFlying workshop in Geneva in January, Claudia remembered that SWISS had shared that they have a  team based in Suva, Fiji, which allows the airline to offer 24/7 customer service. This had also been brought up in previous discussions between the airlines, as they’re part of the Lufthansa group.

Claudia replied to Nadja’s offer, exploring the potential of getting help from the SWISS team during night hours. The only challenge was that the SWISS team used another engagement tool. So Claudia got a new license of the tool used by Brussels Airlines for the SWISS team in Fiji and sent across the templates of replies. Within hours, the airlines were collaborating in replying to Brussels Airlines passenger queries via social media around the clock.

The silver lining

Within hours of the attacks, Brussels Airlines was able to scale up to handle over 15 times the volume they are typically used to. At one point, over 50 people from multiple departments were chipping in. A 24/7 operation was established with help from the SWISS team in Fiji. Ultimately, the call center volume went down by almost 50%, as the social media team scaled up to help.

That shows the resilient nature of the team at Brussels Airlines. Claudia also felt that having so many people chip in with her work would give them a better understanding of what she does as well.

Claudia Tluk

When I last met Claudia in January, she seemed hopeful that she would get half more headcount to help her. This experience will likely be a watershed moment for the airline, just like the Iceland volcano was for KLM in 2010, and the management starts thinking social-first. While most airlines can’t grow like KLM has on social media, with a dedicated team of over 150, it is critical to have a scale-up plan in times of crises and templates ready for facilitating work.

The offer of help from SWISS and the collaboration between the airlines is also a sign of hope. That despite competing for most of the time, airlines are run by humans after all. And we are there for one another in times of need.

P.S: For lessons for airlines from the Brussels attacks, check out the detailed analysis by my colleague, Marco Serusi, published earlier.

P.P.S: This article will be featured in the next edition of the Airline Business magazine.


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