Opinion: Jet Airways, a lesson in crisis (mis)management

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Thu 14 Mar 2019 09:45 PM

Opinion: Jet Airways, a lesson in crisis (mis)management

A failure to prepare staff for the bad times can result in long-lasting damage to a brand

One word came to mind when I was standing at the Jet Airways check-in desk at Dubai International Airport a few weeks ago: chaos.

Minutes earlier, our flight – already delayed for 10 agonising hours – was suddenly cancelled. Around me, dozens of irate passengers were shouting at Jet staff, giving a litany of stories about their desperate need to get to India. One man had an important business meeting. Another – a cab driver – was about to miss his daughter’s wedding. The airline’s staff struggled for answers. Like hapless deer in headlights, they froze.

This, I thought to myself, is no way to manage a crisis.

On one hand, Jet’s woes should have come as no surprise to customers. For the last several weeks, the news has been full of headlines about the airline’s capital crunch, which has seriously affected its operations and led to dozens of planes being grounded.

When the bad times come, have a plan. Or you may find yourself face-to-face with an angry mob of dissatisfied customers

On the other hand, the problems seem to have never been properly communicated to staff members, or – most importantly – the paying customer. At the airport, it was obvious that Jet staff had no answers whatsoever. At least one even resorted to an outright lie. “This flight will definitely take off later,” he said, even as the flight was added to a long and growing list of cancelled flights on the airline’s website.

A glance at Twitter suggests that staff at the airline’s help centre was of no help either.  There are dozens – perhaps hundreds – of tweets from angry customers moaning about a tone-deaf response from airline staff, or promises that they’d receive callbacks that never came.

Given the general chaos the airline has faced, staff on the ground can – perhaps – be forgiven for not knowing what to do in such a situation. This was a crisis of management and communications. From the top bosses of the airline downwards, staff should have received guidance on what to do.

Days after my unfortunate event at the airport, news broke that Jet had managed to successfully negotiate a $300m credit facility from Punjab National Bank (PNB) to meet its working capital requirements. One hopes this means that the airline will run smoothly again.

In the long run, however, a customer service and communications failure such as the one that took place may result in long-term damage to Jet’s brand. I, for one, will never fly Jet Airways again as long as I live. Given the general sentiment about the airline in India and the Gulf, I suspect I’m not the only one.

For airlines – and indeed, any business – Jet’s woes can serve as a learning opportunity. Businesses of all kinds will inevitably go through periods of crisis. A company may commit some sort of PR blunder – as was the case with Pepsi’s ill-fated Kendall Jenner ad – or perhaps supply chain issues will result in shortages. Things happen; that’s business.

For airlines – and indeed, any business – Jet’s woes can serve as a learning opportunity

How a brand responds, however, is what separates the stellar global brands from the mediocre ones. In the case of Pepsi, an honest and heartfelt acknowledgement that they committed a mistake seemed to do the trick. Faced with public backlash about the Kendall Jenner ad, they quickly said that they “missed the mark” and apologised.

For an even better example of a company using relatively simple PR to ingratiate itself with customers, Jet should look to Australia’s Qantas. Just last week, that airline took the time to respond to a 10 year-old boy hoping to start his own airline, giving “the competition” helpful advice and to meet the CEO. In about a day, the exchange was liked over 55,000 times and re-tweeted nearly 20,000 times. Priceless PR.

Jet, on the other hand, largely ignored the crisis publicly. The list of cancelled flights was buried in its website, and its Twitter feed largely ignored the issue. The airline’s financial woes are only mentioned briefly in a February 25 press release buried deep in the website, which defended the airline’s “stellar” reputation and operational metrics. The airline even re-tweeted messages from what one imagines was a small minority of satisfied customers.

Let this serve as a lesson for brands everywhere: when the bad times come, have a plan. Or you may find yourself face-to-face with an angry mob of dissatisfied customers unlikely to forget their bad experiences.