Getting back into the good graces of your customer

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BY now, everyone must have read the tragic case of Dr. David Dao, a passenger on a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Kentucky, who was violently dragged off a plane, bloodied and bruised, because he didn’t want to get bumped off in favor of airline employees. Videos of the incident taken by fellow passengers have already gone viral and with that, the reputation of the airline has crashed. (And so did its shares of stock.)

A few days later, more reports of unfair bumps-off and discourteous crew have made the rounds on social media. This includes the one of Pinoy grandmother, 94-year-old Paz Arquiza, who was transferred from Business Class to Economy on a flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne, because the crew didn’t want to attend to her needs.

There are ongoing moves to boycott United but, so far, there are no reports if bookings have been affected. But the damage has already been done. And United management may have a difficult time getting back into the good graces of the riding public.

Here at home, I consulted former Philippine Airlines (PAL) President Avelino Zapanta, and public-relations expert Edd Fuentes on how to handle a customer relations crisis, particularly a PR nightmare of this nature.

Zapanta, who’s now setting up a College for Aviation Business for World Citi College, says: “If in error, the airline must be honest with the customer—admit the error, apologize and offer a peace offering, like a free ticket. Better still, invite the customer to a dinner meeting to demonstrate goodwill, so that the path to conciliation be strengthened. It need not be the president. Someone in executive [management] can handle it. When I was PAL president, I had a few such dinner meetings with customers.  It works.”

Fuentes, global board member of the International Public Relations Association representing Asia, adds, in a similar situation as United’s, the first thing to do is “release a media statement the very same day of the incident with the following messages: 1) an investigation is being conducted by the company on what happened and how future incidents can be avoided; 2) safety and convenience of the riding public is always the company’s first priority; and 3) apologize to affected person[s].”

He stresses that these messages need to be said, “without owning to any legal responsibility. Of course, the company lawyers have to look at all the legal implications of the media statement to be released.”

Zapanta says during his time at PAL, there were times also that the airline had to bump off passengers due to overbooked flights. “But we never let those cases deteriorate to such an extent that the passengers were already boarded and then deplaned. There’s enough time from the closure of the check-in of the flight to settle the matter on the ground.”

In most PR crises, lawyers and even publicists advice company CEOs to assign a spokesman to insulate the top management from any flak.

“A spokesman issuing the first statement is always the protocol, but in this case, United was correct in having the CEO issue the statements,” Fuentes says. “This was a high-profile incident, and the CEO can’t hide behind spokesman [under such conditions]. He has to show he’s in charge. Unfortunately, the wording of the first statement wasn’t well thought-out and created further issues.”

Moving forward, how does an airline or any company dealing with a PR crisis repair the damaged relationships with its customers and would-be passengers in general? Fuentes stresses it’s best for the carrier to “always provide the service that the riding public deserves. Reassure the public that safety and convenience is a prime consideration of the airline. And, last, just be honest to your public.”

Zapanta, who was also president of Southeast Asian Airlines, is also a firm believer in that age-old adage that “honesty is the best policy”. He thinks what happened in the United dragging incident is that the airline didn’t want to be transparent, and didn’t want to accept it erred. “It’s a road to disaster in customer relations,” he emphasizes.

But the aviation expert points out United could have avoided the unpleasant deplaning of Dr. Dao. “It’s a matter of system, common sense and decisiveness. During my time at PAL, the policy in the case of an oversold situation is to first offer an amount to compensate volunteers. If there are no takers, we would announce the company policy over the PA, which I think is still observed, of deplaning based on the last passengers to check into the flight.  Selecting at random smacks of favoritism or partiality.”

He says when an airline announces the deplaning policy  “followed by quietly and courteously approaching the passengers involved in their seats [which is recorded in the manifest], it works just fine.” Zapanta adds that every airline knows right after the closure of a flight check-in when it’s oversold, which is usually an hour before the departure of international flights, or 30 minutes before a domestic flight leaves. “The time is sufficient to settle the issue on the ground and not allow a situation when it has to be done on board the aircraft. It’s cruel to deplane someone already seated, with all the rights for it being a confirmed and properly checked-in passenger.”

He thinks what happened in the United case is that the four crew members who were given the seats of the confirmed/checked-in passengers, which included Dr. Dao, “must be on official travel, perhaps, to unground an aircraft at the destination of the flight.” Zapanta explains: “It’s very costly for the airline to have a grounded aircraft with all the attendant expenses if passengers are not given acceptable other means of transport, such as hotel accommodation for affected passengers. But that’s precisely the justification for United to up the offer to the passengers bumped off, because even if the offer got to over $1,000, that’s still a paltry sum compared to the expense they’d incur in ungrounding an aircraft.”

Fuentes says his own family members have experienced being deplaned but “they were given free tickets that I was able to use, so okay lang!” He says these matters can be settled through genuine sincere discussions, and “‘bribery’ [i.e., persuading the passenger to be bumped-off with freebies and the like] is always a good option—but the use of force is never, never an option.”

In the end, companies can always return to harmonious ties with its customers by having a congenial attitude toward clients, sincere and effective communication, owning up to responsibilities, and apologizing for mistakes made. And might I add: a genuine desire to reform company policies proven harmful its relationship with its customers.