Prepare for the Unexpected

The unfortunate accident of Asiana Flight 214 (OZ214) is bringing quite the spotlight to the aviation industry. While not as serious, the continued troubles of the Boeing 787 aircraft are also bringing additional scrutiny directed towards aircraft manufactures and the wider net of commercial air travel, the challenges, the risks, and the benefits.

The airline industry is a very competition market, with a small handful of legacy companies still operating – United (new United – created by the merger with Continental), Delta Air Lines (new Delta – created by the merger with Northwest Airlines), US Airways and American (both of which are in the process of merging), all competing against each other and the low cost carriers (LCCs) – Southwest, AirTran, JetBlue, Sun Country, and Allegiant. In addition to a number of other, smaller and less frequently noticed or discussed airlines flying passengers across the United States. Couple all the U.S. based airlines with the international airlines operating flights to and from the U.S, the market can be considered saturated. This saturation has increased the level of consolidation that has occurred over the past decade.

One benefit of globalization, and specifically liberalization of air travel policies, is the opening of new markets that can be reached by air from nearly any large airport. This also poses a significant communication problem for the organizations that have spread their operations all across the globe.

Considering the operational logistics that must be in place to successfully carry out a flight from NYC to Dubai, UAE, there must also be the support structure in place to address and handle any mechanical gremlins that may develop enroute, or on the ground. Especially when you have one, perhaps two flights a day to a location, there is not a lot of opportunities to get additional supplies in position if necessary due to an unexpected maintenance problem. Outside of potential maintenance issues, airline crews must be accommodated for when they reach an overnight destination. In the event something occurs down the line, operationally, that now could cause a significant delay for the overnight crew for the next morning – stable lines of communication must be available so the company can notify the members of schedule changes. The dispatchability of a flight to a location with seasonally extreme weather, think the tropics, can pose a problem if there is a lack of reliable weather observations and aviation forecasts. All these challenges must be addressed before service is initiated into a new, far away, potentially isolated market in a developing country or region. Communication is the glue that allows for all of these elements to work in a seamless manner, going unseen by the flying masses.

Extensive planning and continued evaluation of business practices are required within the airline industry. Airlines must be positioned to respond to internal and external crisis, regardless of their size or scope. Internal crisis can range from extended operational delays due to weather, a lack of flight crews, or maintenance. External crisis can be as simple as a marketing campaign going wrong, an unsuccessful launch into a new market, financial and/or energy price variance to the largest external crisis an airline could ever face – a fatal accident.

Asiana Airlines faced a very difficult logistical, and emotional, environment after being informed of the accident in San Francisco. As South Korea’s second largest airline, Asiana clearly has a trusted brand and passengers regard their operations safe. Aviation accidents can happen anytime and for any number of reasons. The environment is highly dynamic with many influences and potential distractions. Crews must maintain a strong level of situational awareness and operate their aircraft within the standards that they were trained. Unfortunately, without speculating, something went wrong last weekend during the final approach of Asiana flight 214.

News of the accident quickly spread through traditional and social media resources. Some of the first photos were sent through twitter and facebook from passengers as they evacuated the airplane. What eventually transpired was Asiana Airline’s lack of United States crisis communicators and communication staff. Unfortunately, due to this lapse in planning, Asiana was late to get news to the United State’s media markets. The conversation was being driven by social media updates with little involvement from Asiana staff members. Additionally, the National Transportation Safety Board was very quick to drive the conversation, providing frequent updates through twitter and traditional media. The NTSB was successful in driving the conversation, leaking accident information to be shared by the U.S. media environment that drove rampant speculation within the media and in the public’s mind.

Asiana may have been able to take control of the initial conversation had they been prepared with professional communication staff and a company spokesperson present – or at least easily accessible from a location in the United States. Considering the change in communication philosophy at the NTSB, Asiana Airlines was at a significant disadvantage and is slowly attempting to regain control over the conversation, albeit to a certain extent, it is no longer relevant. The NTSB held their last public press conference about the accident late last week. Asiana Airlines is now conducting a fairly aggressive domestic (South Korean) PR campaign to protect the brand and image by showing compassion for the passengers and families affected while providing praise to the cabin crew members for quickly getting those passengers off of the aircraft.

The next few days, and weeks, will show how Asiana recovers. However, largely, the American populace will not see much of it. Being a South Korean airline, Asiana will be working aggressively in their home country to preserve the brand and rebuild. What U.S. airlines need to recognize is that they need to smartly distribute resources and build crisis response and communication programs in the markets that may hold the highest level of isolation from the operation. If a company can quickly take charge and control the conversation, they can be better positioned to transition from the crisis response to the brand rebuilding stage.

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