The impact of a major accident on an airline's traffic and revenues is often short lived but limiting the damage to the carrier's public image is a delicate exercise. Sara Guild examines the lessons learned by a selection of carriers. There is a true tale in aviation's not so distant past that the first reaction of one airline upon hearing one of its aircraft had crashed was to go to the scene and paint out its logo before the media arrived.

Cynics will argue this is no longer possible because the cameras and media arrive well before the body count is known. However in the past 15 years airline management has become more responsible and - through unfortunate tragedies - more knowledgeable about the best way to manage a serious accident.

There are essentially three elements in effective crisis management: being prepared for the worst, the immediate reaction to the accident, and the response in the days and weeks afterwards. 'What you do initially has a big impact on what you have to do later,' says one London-based public relations consultant.

In today's competitive market, the travelling public needs little persuasion to switch to another carrier, which may be perceived as safer. 'Ours is a business that is based almost entirely on public confidence,' says a Boeing spokesman. And while any accident will inevitably shake the public's confidence in the industry as a whole, the airline involved is likely to suffer the most.

Rebuilding confidence quickly means the carrier must be ready to handle a crisis. No matter how clear the safety record, no airline should be caught unawares. 'Airlines should have established contacts with key people around local airports such as the airport authority and the emergency services, so that in the unlikely event that something happens they can cooperate,' says John Enders, past president and vice chairman of the Flight Safety Foundation (FSF).

Lack of planning can lead to the wrong message going out to the public in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. A company must be aware of the image it portrays in these situations.

In the ferry industry, the Zeebrugge disaster was a classic case of crisis management gone wrong, says the PR consultant. 'The chairman of the ferry company was filmed 48 hours after the accident stepping off an airplane in his shorts, sporting a tan. This was completely the wrong image.'

Instead senior management should be visible on the scene as quickly as possible, accepting responsibility but not blame for the accident. 'We are carrying these passengers, so we are responsible. But this should not be confused with blame or cause,' says a British Midland spokesman. 'The cause will be identified by the investigating body.'

Following the Boeing 737 accident in 1989 near the UK's East Midlands airport, the chairman of British Midland, Sir Michael Bishop, was on the scene quickly, speaking to the media and expressing concern and sympathy for the families of the victims. British Midland suffered no subsequent loss of traffic on the route - from London's Heathrow airport to Belfast - and in fact maintained the level of growth that was enjoyed before the accident. Today British Midland claims to be the market leader on the route.

Avoiding speculation about the cause of the accident is just as important as accepting responsibility. Clearly, liability is the main issue and once erroneous information has been published it is very difficult to correct.

It is not always easy to avoid being drawn into speculation by journalists wanting to know how, why, and who to blame before the flames have been put out. But instead airlines can use the media's presence to their advantage by giving out telephone numbers of crisis centres and arranging press briefings as information comes into the public domain.

Public attention

While most carriers can cope with these basics, the real question is how to recover the airline's public image. 'My feeling is that the more the airline returns to normal and acts as if this was an unfortunate but unique accident the better,' says Barbara Beyer, president of consultants Avmark.

Beyer points to USAir's full page advertisements of its hiring of outside organisations to scrutinise safety, and a new vice president of safety, as examples of how not to draw public attention. 'I would not have done that. Instead I would have worked with the media to get more positive stories printed so that those who were genuinely interested would read them,' she says.

Not everyone agrees. 'I think USAir did the right thing to come out with those ads to tell the public their game plan,' says John Enders. 'They acted in full view of the public and given the situation that was as good as they could do.'

With five accidents in as many years, Enders accepts that USAir is a special case and that for most carriers the best way to restore confidence is to continue to go back to the basics of carrying passengers safely and comfortably from A to B. This is particularly true if a situation is initially handled badly. The PR consultant concurs: 'You can't retrieve a reputation with publicity gimmicks; they will not solve all your problems.'

Stop advertising

Among those immediate problems is usually a fall off in traffic. Following the A300 crash at Nagoya in April 1994, China Airlines experienced a 20 per cent decline in the number of passengers in May, compared with 1993. The chairman, Teh-Ming Liu, immediately flew to the scene of the accident, the carrier pulled all its advertising, and in June both Teh-Ming Liu and president Yuan Hsing Yuan resigned. This acceptance of accountability by the senior management did not stem the loss of traffic immediately, but by December the number of passengers was increasing for the first time, by almost 1 per cent over 1993.

A similar dramatic traffic fall was experienced by Japan Airlines following the crash of a Boeing 747 in August 1985. Some domestic routes showed a drop of between 30 and 40 per cent over the previous year. Domestic revenue dropped 13.4 per cent, costing the carrier ´142.7 billion ($792 million at the 1985 exchange rate) in revenue in 1985/6.

In both cases the carriers in question pulled their advertising, as did British Midland. 'It would have been considered grossly insensitive for JAL to advertise in the aftermath of the accident,' says a spokesman.

US culture is different, however, and the alternatives to air travel are scarce. 'Passenger traffic picks up very quickly [in the US.] The traveller does not have the alternative of fast rail travel,' says Enders. And the proliferation of carriers can also lead to confusion. 'There are so many carriers here in the US that you ask a customer at an airport which one has just crashed, and they often get it wrong,' says Beyer.

Monetary incentives

As possible solutions to a drop in traffic, Beyer suggests offering monetary incentives to both travel agents and consumers. Major travel agents can be contacted to gauge their feelings of whether people are avoiding the carrier in question. If they are, the travel agent should be asked whether he or she is advising customers to travel on another airline, says Beyer. 'If you want to play the money game, offer them an additional 1 per cent commission for 30 to 45 days. Give them an economic incentive to sell you,' she adds.

A China Airlines spokes man says CAL offered some travel agents a volume-based commission as an incentive to help improve its post-crash load factors. However, he also points out that CAL suffered more than just the accident, with severe typhoons in July and August and the Qiandao Lake disaster prior to the accident also playing a role in the traffic reduction.

A discount can also be offered to the consumer, says Beyer. 'Amazingly enough, people vote with their wallets. Buy your customers back. It is a short-term cost but a long-term gain,' she says.

However this requires a certain amount of sensitivity and delicacy, says the PR consultant, and may prove to be less successful outside the US. 'People will make the association that this carrier has had an accident and is now offering cheap flights,' he believes.

Carriers should be aware of cultural differences. After JAL's accident, the carrier paid solatium for the immediate costs of the funerals, in keeping with Japanese custom. In some countries this is interpreted by lawyers as an admission of liability, though in JAL's case it was not. Furthermore, before stepping down as president of JAL in the aftermath of the crash, Yasumoto Takagi personally visited each victim's family, offering traditional Japanese mourning gifts of incense, seaweed, dried mushrooms and fine tea.

Cheap compensation

To the western eye this may be seen as cheap compensation for the loss of human life. However by establishing direct contact JAL was successful in negotiating personal claims directly rather than through the court system. This contrasts sharply with the US, where court cases often drag on for years, keeping matters in the public eye.

From a public image point of view the worst accidents are those where cause is never established. 'No one wants to walk away from an accident saying we do not know what happened,' says John Thom of McDonnell Douglas. 'These accidents will get more attention because there is no clear cut explanation.'

Even when the reason is uncovered, it attracts less attention than the accidents themselves, which make for screaming headlines and front page colour pictures. 'The goal of the industry is to find the improvement, that better design, that little thing that makes safety even better. That usually does not get reported,' says Thom.

There is, however, comfort for some airline executives: those in charge of well-established carriers with a jet fleet appear to have an easier time winning back public confidence. One hurdle lies not in the truth, but in the public's perception of the safety of smaller, turboprop aircraft. 'There is no such thing as an unsafe aircraft. It is either safe and it flies because the aircraft meets the standards, or it is not safe and it does not fly,' says a spokesman for Airbus Industrie.

But as Enders points out, a larger plane has a comfort factor for many travellers. 'If a small aircraft is involved in an accident it is not as protective for the passenger. But compensating for that, it lands more slowly - at about 60 per cent the speed of a larger plane,' he says.

That same comfort factor benefits airlines with established reputations, says Beyer. 'Major carriers give their passengers a warm fuzzy feeling,' she says. 'If a major airline and a newcomer are charging the same fare, there is a preponderance for the world established carrier.'

Relatively new carriers of any size will also have a tougher time rebuilding after an accident. 'Crisis communication is about protecting the reputation of the airline. If you are new, you have not established a reputation yet,' says the PR consultant.

A further difficulty is that the drop in traffic is generally on the route on which the accident took place, says Beyer. So unlike a regional or new carrier, a larger, established carrier may be able to rely on the financial performance of the rest of its network.

Should the small airline be experiencing financial difficulties prior to the accident, as was the case with Air Florida before its January 1982 B737 accident, recovery may not be possible. Air Florida failed to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for which it filed in July 1984.

Bankruptcy is rarely the end result of an accident. Indeed major airline accidents are rare events in themselves. The FSF's Icarus report states that there is a one in 4.6 million chance of being killed in a commercial aviation accident. With a one in 2,000 chance of the earth being hit by a meteor the odds are in the favour of the travelling public and the airlines.

Accident rate

A note of caution, however, comes from an unlikely source. 'Given that accident rates are quite low, they are not going down as fast as the industry is growing,' says Boeing's Martin. 'It could be that unless we can achieve a change in that accident rate, we could be seeing a major accident every couple of weeks. Then it would be difficult to predict what that would mean for carriers.' The message is clear: airline managers cannot afford to be complacent.

There is another tale in the annals of aviation. A decade ago, a European airline president was discussing flight safety and confessed he would not know what to say to the media or how to react if his carrier was involved in an accident. He subsequently formed a regular discussion group with his collegues about safety and crisis management.

Today airline managers cannot afford to be caught out. They must prepare for the worst and hope that the skills of pilots and manufacturers, careful training and rigourous maintenance and safety inspections, will ensure they never need to put their plans into action.

Today airline managers cannot afford to be caught out. They must prepare for the worst and hope that the skills of pilots and manufacturers, careful training and rigourous maintenance and safety inspections, will ensure they never need to put their plans into action.

Source: Airline Business