Can Airlines Pull Out of Their Public Opinion Nosedive?

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Airline horror stories are adding up in the public mind, and United's forced removal of David Dao is now a cultural touchpoint.
Airline horror stories are adding up in the public mind, and United's forced removal of David Dao is now a cultural touchpoint. Credit: iStock

A woman is forced to pee in a cup after being denied restroom access. A man is threatened with jail and his children with foster care for talking back to an official. People are arrested amid a public brawl triggered by mistreatment. Each incident would be appalling in its own right. But together, they paint a picture of the American airline industry in recent weeks -- in this case at United, Delta and Spirit, respectively.

Every day seems to bring a new story of passenger misfortune at the hands of an airline, a trend only expected to intensify when Memorial Day weekend kicks off the summer travel season. Although one-off PR nightmares often pass, the cumulative effect is now threatening to create lasting repercussions for airlines, affecting how they operate as businesses and retain employees.

"The consumer issue and the tensions are just going to boil over into other aspects that make it difficult for the industry to operate," said Katie Sprehe, senior director at Washington, D.C.-based APCO Worldwide, a communications firm that specializes in crisis management.

While the American Automobile Association has not yet released its seasonal predictions, it expects another busy summer for air travel. Consumers have spent $19 billion on airfare year-to-date, a 4.3% rise over the year-earlier period, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp., a data company that processes carrier ticket transactions.

Credit: The New Yorker

Though carriers have suffered brand crises before, few have compared with the recent spate of incidents dating back to United Airline's violent removal of paying passenger David Dao, a 69-year-old doctor, to make room for United crew in early April. The event was followed by a flurry of similar episodes. The furor has gotten so bad that The New Yorker will feature on its May 22 cover an illustration of ousted FBI chief James Comey as Dao getting dragged off a plane. United even got slapped for trying to join the fun around Wendy's free-nuggets giveaway to Carter Wilkerson after he broke the record for retweets. When United offered to fly Wilkerson to a Wendy's anywhere in the world, online wits warned Wilkerson that it was a trap. "Can't wait to see you get dragged out of the plane with a bag full of #nuggz," one wrote on Twitter.

The anger has been brewing over years of rising prices and shrinking service. "The consequence of a decade of consolidation of airlines brought consumers to practically face monopolies," said Michal Herzenstein, associate professor of marketing at the University of Delaware's Lerner College of Business and Economics, noting that travelers, suffering from "loss aversion" over reductions in food and leg room, have become emboldened by the power of social media. "We like to vilify the airlines now," she said.

Federal lawmakers are now threatening tougher regulation if airlines don't improve customer service. YouGov BrandIndex, which tracks consumer perception, found that passengers have become more sensitive to questionable treatment by airlines, especially since the United incident.

How People Feel About Airlines
Source: YouGov BrandIndex. Scores can range from -100 to 100, with 0 equaling neutral.
Delta August 7, 2016: Power outage grounded flights.
United April 9, 2017: A doctor is violently dragged off a plane.
Delta April 23, 2017: Family kicked off flight and threatened with jail.
American May 2, 2017: Said it will reduce leg room on future coach flights.

"When something big goes viral, it encourages more people to be filming, thinking this is something people are interested in," said Ted Marzilli, chief executive of YouGov Data Products. "The airline industry is trying to respond, but doing it in a reactive way."

Brands have discussed in recent weeks how to improve employee training practices. A United spokeswoman said the company is implementing 10 new policies, including restricting the use of law enforcement to security problems and increasing customer compensation for voluntary rebooking.

Last year, U.S. airlines invested some $17.5 billion in customer service enhancements like larger overhead bins and better Wi-Fi, according to Airlines for America, a lobbying group. "Airlines are focused and committed to delivering the flight experience our customers expect and deserve when they take to the skies and recognize that the onus is on us to foster a customer-centric environment," an Airlines for America spokeswoman said.

Yet changing customer perception is an uphill battle. Even though there aren't great alternatives for traveling a long way, the current problems could hamper an airline's ability to attract and retain good employees. Staffers don't want to brawl with consumers or be shamed on social media for following company protocol, said APCO's Sprehe.

Airlines need to change the narrative if they're going to ease the tension, Sprehe said. That doesn't necessarily mean marketing customer service fixes or new amenities. It could be a campaign on more neutral ground, like a new environmental agenda to become a more sustainable brand.

"It can be very challenging to counteract such a negative narrative," said Sprehe. "But they need to push out a little bit more of a fuzzy feeling."

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