Over the past year, the air carriers in the US have been involved in multiple incidents that have compounded the industry’s reputational woes. From dragging passengers off planes, a pilot ranting about her divorce and the election, combative flight attendants, to throwing passengers off a flight over stowing a birthday cake, it has not been an impressive year for American airline carriers.
Perhaps it is something in the air (pun intended), because at the end of September, Ireland-based low-cost carrier Ryanair entered the airline crisis maelstrom. The carrier stranded hundreds of thousands of customers, canceling more than 2,100 flights at first, and then expanding cancellations to an astonishing 18,000 flights. In the revised statement the air carrier said that it would be canceling roughly 60 flights per day for the next six weeks. The cancellations are estimated to affect more than 700,000 passengers.
Were these flights canceled due to a company strike? Plane safety? An extreme weather event? No, nope, and again, no. What happened is that the company failed to plan correctly for a change in aviation rules covering pilots’ logged hours. In a clunky effort to comply, Ryanair forced its pilots to take all unused vacation time before the end of the year—which meant that it didn’t have enough pilots to fly its scheduled flights.
Adding insult to injury, Ryanair then utterly botched compensation for its stranded customers. Its initial offer to stranded passengers was to rebook them on other Ryanair flights. As full as most flights are nowadays, it was predictable that this effort would fall far short of its mark too. As the outcry grew louder, the carrier changed its compensation policy, extending more generous offers to stranded customers. This in turn angered those who had accepted the initial offers—and again, Ryanair’s phone lines were jammed with angry customers, now divided into two groups: those stranded and awaiting compensation, and those irritated that others were receiving more generous compensation offers.
Most carriers worry about crises of this sort because it could affect sales. When there are many airlines competing for the same or similar routes with the same or similar pricing, consumers can generally speaking go elsewhere.
This isn’t what would ultimately hurt Ryanair, however. Its rates are so low it has little competition on cost, particularly since one of its competitors, Monarch Airlines, collapsed last week. Ryanair needs to worry about two things: a new competitor emerging, and potential regulatory action from a variety of angles, including the EU or any of its member states.
The Civil Aviation Authority in Britain has already announced that Ryanair might face legal action for its failure to provide adequate information to consumers when their flights were canceled—potentially a breach of consumer protection laws. Italy’s aviation authority has announced it has begun preparing sanctions against Ryanair for violating an EU law called Regulation 261, which governs airline behavior in compensating and assisting customers in the wake of air cancellations.
While the potential for a competitor to emerge to take on Ryanair is not as immediate as the threat of potential regulatory or legal action, it isn’t non-existent either.
Reputational issues matter, and the Ryanair crisis shows us also how customer service—especially consistent customer service—plays a role in public relations.
For whatever reason, the air travel industry has had more than its standard share of crises this year, but it should be noted that virtually all of the problems they have faced as an industry have largely been self-inflicted wounds. Whether decisions about the business are being made without PR professionals at the table or if PR is voicing concerns and being ignored, companies should take note of these self-inflicted crises and closely examine the effects of bad PR. Short-term quarterly financial gains may not be worth the long-term reputational hits.
As for the airline industry, it would seem they have a long way to go to improve their own crisis planning and prevention. What will it take to get the air travel industry to turn things around?