Always-on news coverage has or the past 15 years conditioned people to recalibrate their emotions to better cope with seemingly endless stories of calamities and disasters—both natural and manmade—that result in unfathomable human misery, despair and death.
We train our ears to listen hard for those first few revealing words uttered by some anchor or written down on some breaking news bulletin rolling at the bottom of our televisions screens: earthquake, flooding, genocide, mass kidnappings, school shootouts. Increasingly two new words have crept into that dreaded lexicon that makes us involuntarily brace ourselves: airline crashes.
Some people will no doubt immediately tune out at this point, rationalizing that airline-related dangers remain relatively rare in comparison to other more deadly and frightening acts of violence. And they might be right in an absolute sense. But here is the thing: As human beings we feel and react irrationally to things that seem much closer to us personally. So the issue is inevitably growing larger in people’s minds.
And for airline chiefs around the world this means factoring in and dealing with yet another symptom of an ever-changing business landscape if they are to stay competitive: safety.
All businesses—all brands—have or need to incorporate into their value chains what many consultants call 'hygiene' factors. This is a euphemism that refers to those basic must-haves, non-negotiable product or service offerings that effectively amount to the 'price-to-play' for brands in a particular category.
For airlines it is safety. Without the reassurance of this elementary deliverable, airlines—regardless of whatever else they promise—would go out of business. Yet most, if not all airlines, long ago moved away from explicitly talking about safety in their advertising because of the collective belief that 'progress', in the form of bigger, safer, more sophisticated airliners, had rendered this expectation entirely implicit.
But a lot things have a habit of going full circle.
Progress, has not, of course, impacted only the design of airplanes. It has also transformed airline business models. Perhaps the single most dramatic development of the past two decades or so has been the introduction and transformative effect of budget airlines. To borrow the very effective and accurate AirAsia slogan, 'Now everyone can fly', budget airlines ushered in the era that made flying accessible to almost anyone.
The proliferation of budget airlines profoundly changed how people travel, but in the process it also impacted myriad other elements along and beyond every point of the industry value chain. Lower-cost travel means more people flying, which means more planes flying, more hours cluttering the skies with even more planes which require more pilots which in turn results in many consequential reactions up and down that chain.
Because of this, when we talk about safety today it is not like safety in the past, which was mostly concerned with the integrity or aerodynamics of airplanes. Today safety revolves around a laundry list of many other elements. Among them: pilots, maintenance and management decision-making. That means that tomorrow we may well start asking different questions:
1. Pilots: How good are they? Today we question how well trained pilots are. Should the selection process also scrutinize mental stability, personal temperament and even religious affiliations?
An investigation into a 1999 EgyptAir crash concluded that the pilot brought the plane down in an act of suicide. In 2009 passengers were startled and terrified when the pilot and co-pilot of an Air India flight rolled out of the cockpit fighting one another. The plane was cruising at 30,000 feet at the time.
In a much more recent and seemingly bizarre incident, an executive of Korean Air humiliated a cabin crew member and ordered that the plane return to the gate from the taxiway. That the captain abdicated his own responsibility to override the order by readily and apparently instantly obeying this executive—who also happened to be the daughter of the company chairman—revealed a disconcerting behavioural trait that in a different configuration of circumstances could have endangered the safety of the passengers.
2. Service and maintenance: How well and how often are airplanes serviced and repaired? In the 1990s airlines from Indonesia were shunned by thousands of people because of shoddy service records. Many countries even went so far as refusing permission to airlines from this country to overfly their airspaces.
3. Management: When we don’t worry about the crew and the aircraft equipment we may now start to wonder about the judgment of airline managers who make decisions about where it is and is not safe to fly. The recent tragic shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines plane over the Ukraine brought this new fear home.
The emergence of the budget airlines has also presented legacy airlines with a new—and to some—insurmountable problem: how to compete on price without compromising passenger service standards as well as safety standards (not to mention brand equity).
Up until now the stronger legacy airlines have managed to survive by maintaining and strengthening differentiated propositions that continue to appeal to specific segments of the travelling public. In 2011 the Australian carrier Qantas ran a campaign that included this stark outdoor billboard message: When you board a Qantas flight, you expect a Qantas pilot. Whilst the message was designed to address dual purposes—strengthen the pilots' hands in the middle of an industrial dispute as well as reinforce the calibre of the pilots to the travelling public—the inference was clear: Qantas pilots were better and therefore, safer.
The string of airline tragedies that have characterized 2014 will only accelerate the changing safety calculus that is taking place in the minds of passengers. This should give all airline chiefs—regardless of their business models—reason to pause as they ponder their business strategies moving forward.
Safety will cease to be a hygiene factor to many people, which should mean that it should cease to be a hygiene factor to the more progressive airline brands. And, to state the obvious, it will not suffice to have this change reflected only in marketing communications (though some carriers will inevitably limit their investment to just that). Profound structural changes will need to take place. And these changes will apply to all airlines in different ways.
Perhaps the greatest burden will fall on the budget carriers, who will have to prove that their overall safety standards—ranging from structurally safe airplanes to competent pilots and management executives—are as good as those of the legacy airlines. But this creates a problem, from a branding point of view, in that it forces these airlines to de-focus on the core low-cost messaging.
For legacy airlines that have been battling to remain price-competitive, the unspeakable tragedies of the past year may in fact lead to a new opportunity to regain prominence. With most if not all enjoying strong perceptions of safety, the situation may be an opportunity to reinforce the value of airlines that adopt a holistic management approach—excellence and proven competence across every dimension of the business—in a sector where one lapse can directly or indirectly result in catastrophic outcomes.
Joseph Baladi ([email protected]) is a principal of BrandAsian and is the author of The Brutal Truth About Asian Branding (Wiley).