How airlines brands can emerge stronger from the Covid-19 crisis #coronavirus

The Covid-19 caused by the corona virus outbreak has gripped travellers with fear. Airlines are hurting. Some airlines are slashing capacity by half, while stocks of some are down over 50% in the past month. Aircraft will be grounded. Staff will be asked to go on no-pay leave. And yet, through all of this, the industry needs to keep the confidence of its employees and customers to emerge stronger.

A black-swan event like the Covid-19 is an externality that the airline brand needs to look in the eye and come out on top.

Airlines cannot behave like the victims despite their own suffering, but instead try to help everyone impacted. Airlines need to shine when the spotlight is on them. Here is how.

1. Introduce policies that work for customers, not just for you

Airlines like Qatar Airways have introduced Covid-19 waivers for not just future bookings but also existing reservations. This takes into account the fact that people booking now are well aware of the risks, while people who booked months ago should not be penalized if they are unable to change their flights. By contrast, British Airways have introduced “no change fee for new bookings” to encourage travelers to book. They are primarily doing this to prevent forward bookings from dropping off a cliff.

I believe Qatar’s is a fairer policy from the passengers’ point of view. Ultimately, airlines that think in the interest of customers, and not just their own, will build long term brand affinity during this corona virus crisis.

2. Don’t just inform, reassure.

Airlines have been quick to update their websites giving details on cancelled flights, travel restrictions to certain destinations, and details of how to rebook if affected. For example, Alitalia has large blocks of text with the right information, likely written by lawyers. While this may inform about the impact of Covid-19, it doesn’t reassure anyone.

Critical information needs to be presented visually and proactive efforts airlines are taking to keep travellers safe should be highlighted. Cathay Pacific has created a clear, easy to understand visual guide headed ‘10 things we’re doing to reassure you.’ You can grasp what Cathay Pacific is saying within a minute, but at the same time it also looks detailed and credible. WestJet has gone a step further and introduced a visual dashboard that shows the level or risk to Canadian travelers.

Qatar Airways released a video on social media showing staff (in full body suits) giving an aircraft a deep clean. Six months ago this isn’t the kind of video an airline would release, and it certainly wouldn’t be the sort of video to get 25,000 views in a day. However, passengers want reassurance, and that includes showing how they are maintaining a hygienic cabin environment.

Airlines that reassure in times like these, rather than those who merely inform, will be the ones who remain etched in the hearts of travellers.

3. Walk the talk

Air Canada has done a good job sharing proactive steps they are taking to prevent the spread of Covid-19 on board their aircraft. These range from using hospital-grade disinfectants to deep cleaning during overnight turnarounds. However, upon boarding a recent long haul flight to Vancouver, passengers discovered crushed cups, used napkins, broken biscuits and open creamer sachets. When the flight crew was notified, they duly apologized and cleaned up.

However, this shows that the outstation cleaning crew had not done their job properly. In times of heightened awareness, airlines need to ensure that they are delivering on their promises. Otherwise, they stand to lose brand trust formed over years of flying.

4. Don’t over-communicate

While it is important to share information regularly, airlines must also be conscious of communicating with subsets of customers via specific channels about Covid-19. United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz sent out an email to all customers assuring them that the airline is taking steps toward making travel safer. Soon after, another email was sent by the VP of Loyalty to frequent flying Mileage Plus members sharing that there will be no changes to how they would earn their elite status this year, but the airline will keep them informed if anything changes due to corona virus.

The second piece of communication came too soon after the CEO’s note and did not communicate any additional steps the airline was taking. In this age of endless notifications, it is important to reach out to your most important customers only when needed. Otherwise, they will just swipe left and ignore the brand.

5. Leading by example

A number of airlines are now cutting capacity and asking staff to take unpaid leave due to Covid-19, from Emirates to Lufthansa. However, two 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%. Further south, 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 corona virus. 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 Emirates, which is also looking to cut capacity. 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.

These are just some of the things airlines can do to build brand trust through these difficult times. There will definitely be questions whether traffic will bounce back to previous levels, especially business traffic. Though, what matters is to shine when the spotlight is on you.

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is the Founder and CEO of SimpliFlying, one of the world’s largest aviation marketing firms working with over 85 aviation clients in the last ten years. Nigam is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior executives globally, from Chile to China. Nigam’s impassioned and honest perspectives on airline marketing have found their way to over 100 leading media outlets, including the BBC, CNBC, Reuters and Bloomberg, and into leading publications such as The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He writes a dedicated monthly column in Flight’s Airline Business, challenging the typical assumptions about airline marketing. His new book on airline marketing, SOAR, is an Amazon bestseller that’s shaking up the industry and inspiring other industries to learn from the best airlines. Born in India, raised in Singapore, he now lives with his wife and two young daughters in Toronto.
Shashank Nigam
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