How to lead your airline through the coronavirus pandemic?

Airline leaders have possibly the toughest job in business right now due to the coronavirus pandemic. They need to handle customer demand that’s falling off a cliff, oil prices well below their hedges and panicking politicians who tend to view airlines as scapegoats.

How can you then lead through this crisis such that, when it’s all over, your brand comes out stronger, your employee morale higher and your customers more loyal?

It may not be easy to achieve all three goals, but it’s not impossible, despite coronavirus. In fact, some airline executives are already leading with this end in mind. Here is what needs to be done.

Be honest and show empathy

In tough times, leaders need to show empathy. Everyone is suffering. Passengers and frontline staff are concerned about catching the coronavirus. The rest of the employees fear they may not get paid. Investors are watching stock prices fall into a bottomless pit.

In such uncertain times, a leader who first acknowledges the fears and appreciates the efforts that everyone is taking stands out. A good example is Southwest Airlines CEO, Gary Kelly. In his video message to the airline’s staff, he starts by saying,

“Warriors…I am proud of the work that you do. I am very grateful and appreciative of all of you…you are my top priority.”

Isn’t that re-assuring if you work for the airline? In fact, a message full of empathy and appreciation is on-brand for Southwest Airlines. When I was conducting interviews with its executives for my book SOAR, I learnt about the Golden Rule inside the company. It prioritizes employees ahead of customers and shareholders.

Gary Kelly’s honest video re-assures employees and prepares them for what’s coming due to coronavirus. He states the facts while fully recognizing the efforts of his staff. I’d recommend you watch the video below in full – it’s a masterclass in crisis communications.

Be visible

Each airline leader is possibly busier this week than he or she has ever been in their entire career. It is easy to hide behind excel sheets, scurry from one meeting to another and focus on keeping your head above water. But if you are invisible to your staff and customers, it will breed rumors and demotivate them.

Airline leaders need to take every opportunity to put themselves in on every platform available. WestJet CEO, Ed Sims, holds regular town hall meetings to brief staff. Alex Cruz at British Airways is known to reply to threads on Yammer, an internal communication platform. In the video below, you’ll see TAP Air Portugal’s CEO, Antonoaldo Neves making a candid announcement in-flight about what his airline is doing to tackle the coronavirus.

When leaders are visible, they boost confidence among employees and customers alike during tough times like these.

Actions speak louder than words

A number of airlines are now cutting capacity and asking staff to take unpaid leave due to Covid-19, from Emirates to Cathay Pacific. However, some airlines’ CEOs are leading by example. Singapore Airlines’ CEO Goh Choon Phong announced that he will be taking a 15% pay cut. Further down the line, Senior Vice Presidents will take a 10% cut and Senior Managers will see their salaries decrease by 5%.

Down under, Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran will be taking a voluntary 15% pay cut and introducing a salary freeze for senior management. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has decided to forgo his salary for the rest of the year.

This is leading by example. It demonstrates that the very team, including the person at the very top is sharing in any sacrifices due to the impact of coronavirus.

It turns what could be a negative story (airline grounds aircraft) into a positive one (senior managers show solidarity and leadership). Contrast that to airlines like Cathay Pacific, which is also suffering. Its request for staff to take unpaid leave didn’t receive the same public response, because it simply looked like the airline was asking the lowest paid to take on the biggest burden.

Airline leaders need to see the opportunities in this pandemic to come out stronger at the other end. The light at the end of the tunnel may be an oncoming train. But we can try to board it too!

SimpliFlying will soon be hosting a free webinar on coming out stronger from covid-19 impact. You can sign up here: http://bit.ly/Covid19Webinar

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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