May 03, 2017 / by James Rubec

How many indicators on an airplane do you think it takes for a pilot to go into Emergency mode? One? Two?

Pilots have altimeters, instruments that help them monitor their elevation in the sky, with radar they know where they are in relation to other planes, the ground, and even how well their engines are performing. If anything goes wrong, they follow procedure to correct course, or land the plane. That’s why there hasn’t been a major air disaster in the United States in several years. Can we all do a collective knock on wood if possible? Good.

The real cause of the United Airlines incident is an industry-wide problem, the all-too-common practice of overbooking. Bumping a paying passenger from a flight is an enormously disruptive action, regardless of which airline does it. The fact of the matter is that airlines know this, and until the recent incident the industry did not have any reason to financially care.

The $776 million loss in market capitalization from a stock falling 2% will get most airline CEOs out of bed and into the boardrooms, discussing how to prevent this crisis from happening to them. United’s tactic of reimbursing affected passengers combined with a questionable crisis communications response for a couple days about what happened has taught everyone a dear lesson.

Airline brand executives have taken note and are now racing to the top, changing policies and sending new messaging out about how they are moving toward a better customer experience. Delta came out first, announcing it would pay flyers up to $10,000 for their seat, United has followed suit. But here lies the issue, why did it take this incident to force them to take note? Couldn’t there have been a better way to evaluate the risk of the situation and build an understanding of what customers need and what a brand’s risks really are?

Yes, absolutely, and it starts with an analysis of user generated content.

This chart is shows insights on all blog and news media mentions of discussions around overbooked flights and passengers being bumped every single day. At Cision we can track conversation anywhere on social media, the news media, radio, broadcast and print and synthesis what’s been said into data.

Our data shows that, between 300 and 600 journalists, bloggers and commenters on sites like Trip Advisor, will share articles about their crappy flight experiences every single day.

Over a year, that means that the authorship total of people who’ve had bad experiences, issues bad enough to write about, could be as high as 200,000 people a year.

This has happened before: when Air Canada stranded passengers for a day and a half in Costa Rica. In this case several different passengers got bumped from their flights, causing huge headaches for affected travellers. The airline even appologized after it bumped a 10-year old from a flight.

Air Canada CBC Jan 10.PNG

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Mental Floss wrote a piece about how overbooked flights are unavoidable. So, here we have a publication with 2.1 million followers essentially stating that this is a fact of life and we should get over it. Like death and taxes.

Mental Floss - Jan 13 Bumped Flight.PNG

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Ultimately, like a traffic jam, these things happen, but the United incident proved that this is no longer acceptable. Every single year based on User Generated Content, the airline industry has had hundreds of thousands of flashing buzzing lights screaming at them to change course.

A pilot might only need a single indicator light to tell him or her that they are in a dangerous situation; apparently brands need millions of them.

This is the new paradigm airlines are going to have to live in. You can’t forcibly relocate people from their seats. Overbooked flights, the current process to fix this, and the PR response to bad customer service is a combination that is bad for business and bad for customers.

The lesson here:

It isn’t enough to just listen to complaints about your own brand, or teams, or products, you have to listen to the entire industry to know what the flashing red signals are, and how to avoid them.

When you listen to insights you get three things:

  1. Line of sight into communications and brand risk; this way you don’t make a mountain out of a molehill or miss an oncoming train.
  2. You can identify the leading influencers, modalities and communications patterns around these issues, you know when something will blow over, who to reach out to learn how to solve an issue and you can identify everyone who has been affected in the past.
  3. Finally, you gain knowledge on the best way to manage the issue and craft a business strategy that actually ameliorates the issue foundationally. The brand doesn’t blow up because you’ve engineered around major issues customers actually care about.

Think about what your flashing red lights are, don’t let your organizations use excuses to navigate around them, tell them the sky is falling and use this example. Put numbers behind the issues and scream at the top of your lungs to make change happen.

When you have journalists at The New York Times writing opinion pieces about your industry’s failings, it is best to get ahead of the story. By listening to your customers and affecting change internally using that data, you can avoid the storm and enjoy fair PR skies ahead.

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About James Rubec

James Rubec is a data geek, a former public relations lead and journalist with a love of content and advocacy. Ask him anything @JamesRRubec and be sure to follow @Cision_Canada.