United's public relations blunder shines a light on GCC airlines

Comment: Instead of attacking Gulf carriers for what is perceived to be unfair practices, US can learn from Emirates and Etihad
United's public relations blunder shines a light on GCC airlines
By Neil Halligan
Sun 16 Apr 2017 02:11 PM

When the news broke that Donald Trump’s administration was about to impose a ban on electronics being carried on board flights to the US, we knew it was going to be a story of some significance.

As more details slowly emerged, aviation gurus suggested an ulterior motive: Trump’s way of giving the US so-called ‘big three’ an opportunity to regain some of the international territory lost to the Gulf carriers, particularly after the UK and Australia both offered different, but non-disruptive solutions.

Whatever the reason for including the UAE and Qatar in the US ban, it was, for all intents and purposes, a crisis situation.

To ban the use of laptops and tablets on board its aircraft affected a core area of business for Gulf airlines — luxury and corporate travel. Their responses, while in varying degrees of effectiveness, was a lesson in crisis management.

It was calm and measured, issued through their trusted social media channels or through their websites.

The consistent message in the Gulf carriers’ communication for days following the sudden change in US policy was to highlight the many onboard activities of its aircraft that were unaffected by the ban, best summed up by Emirates’ reworking of the Jennifer Aniston ad — ‘Who needs tablets and laptops anyway?’

Airline CEOs and senior execs also played their part, issuing calm statements, assuring passengers that a solution was being worked on.

The premium customers in First and Business Class — corporate travel — is where the Gulf carriers were most concerned.

When the PC or tablet loaning service was rolled out, it was no surprise that it was for premium class only. In time, you could see Economy class being offered the same for a charge, but passengers also have been offered use of the device up until boarding, allaying concerns about losing them in baggage handling.

But the unfolding events over the period of a week underlined the importance of crisis management for any business, not just airlines.

The key elements: prepare in advance, deliver a calm message and find a viable solution were all evident when the Gulf carriers were thrown the US curve ball (albeit based on intelligence services belief of a possible threat to passengers and airlines).

Fast forward to last week and across the pond in the US to see an example of how not to handle a crisis situation.

United Airlines, one of three carriers in an ongoing row with the Gulf carriers over their growth into the US market, made costly errors in how it handled an incident that saw one of its passengers literally thrown off a flight in Chicago that was too full. Videos of the heavy-handed incident went viral online.

In his brand-damaging response, CEO Oscar Munoz initially apologised but, later, the airline called the passenger “disruptive” and “belligerent”.

The belittling comments saw the airline’s market price slump 3 percent and wipe $675m off United’s market cap, marking the biggest decline on a Bloomberg index of a US airline.

Maybe it is time they give a Gulf carrier a call.

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