A Failure to Communicate
Late last week, executives from Canada's major airlines appeared before a federal government committee to try to explain why their service has been so bad since just before Christmas. They all apologized and promised to do better and communicate better too.
In fact, I have a good idea of some of the things that were said in boardrooms when the airlines made those decisions.
Three Weeks of Pain
I can never remember a short period of time when air travel in North America has been in such a mess.
The trouble started just before Christmas in Vancouver when the west coast got a ton of snow and the airport, flights and baggage were messed up for a week. Some people had to spend 11-hours in planes on the tarmac. A few days later, terrible weather hit in Ontario and travel and baggage at Pearson in Toronto was screwed up for a good week.
Part of the problem was weather-related, but there were several other issues impacting service.
In the US, Southwest Airlines almost shutdown right after Christmas, cancelling thousands of flights. Back in Canada a few days later and Sunwing sent a Tweet saying it would soon no longer be doing business in Saskatchewan, even though thousands of people had already booked flights. There was no explanation, just a “See ya later.”
Last week a computer glitch grounded flights across parts of the US. A similar problem caused some problems in Canada. A rare January fog also cancelled flights in Edmonton.
Through it all though, one thing was consistent – the airlines said virtually nothing.
These are big companies, with huge Communication departments filled with really smart people. But they said nothing.
Passengers were terribly frustrated. Almost every night on TV newscasts there were sound bites from stranded passengers saying the airlines weren’t telling them a thing about when they would get to their destination.
All they wanted was some information, good or bad, so they could get on with their lives at a critical time of the year.
5 Reasons Not to Communicate
The question remains, why did the airlines say so little when they had so many problems on their hands. You would think with their customers telling everyone who would listen, including the news media, that their airline had to be the worst in the world, that somebody would say something.
Unfortunately, I’ve come to learn that in times of crisis, the leaders who are paid the big bucks to speak to their customers and the media run away from them.
With that in mind, here’s my best guess at the five statements that were made in airline boardrooms, as decisions were made to stay silent.
1. This is a complete and utter shitshow. We have no idea how we’re going to fix this, so anything we say could be wrong. We’re not going there.
2. We don’t want to go in front of the media after stranding thousands of people. We’d get ripped apart. It would be painful.
3. We’re not the only ones to blame here, but if we start talking, we might blame the airport, or the unions or the government, so we better not say anything.
4. This is such a disaster our CEO should be the one speaking, but he doesn’t like talking to the media so….
5. Our lawyers told us not to.
Does It Really Matter?
Last Thursday, airline officials from Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing (who all must have drawn the short straws) appeared before a federal government committee to answer questions for their airline’s problems.
They all apologized to their customers for the service they provided and for poor communication.
These are two different, but obviously closely connected things. It’s one thing to have service delivery problems because of weather, but it’s totally something else not to talk about it.
It was almost as if, after everything was said and done, the airlines finally realized they didn’t communicate very well. “Hey you know what, I guess another thing we forgot to do was tell our customers what was happening. Gee, we’ll have to make a note so we don’t forget to do that next time we have a problem.”
One, or maybe a few of those reasons listed above are why the airlines said no little. This wasn’t the first time those airlines have dealt with weather and staffing issues. Shouldn’t they have been prepared to tell their customers what was happening when things went wrong?
It’s pretty clear the airlines made conscious decisions not to provide important information to their customers, or to speak to the media despite opportunities. It was almost as if they were all in their fox holes and didn’t want to poke their heads out.
Imagine if one of those airlines would have gone out of its way to communicate during the crisis, even if it had very little good news to pass along? Not one airline did though, until it was too late, so they all look the same.
People who got stranded by a certain airline will say they’ll never fly with that airline again and a few might even back it up and boycott. However, the bottom line is, the airlines know people don’t have many choices in Canada, so all the negative PR won’t make much of a difference. There are some routes that only one airline flies, so what choice do we have?
The airlines know that. The cell phone companies do too. Same thing. We don't have many options.
Still it would be nice to see the leaders of these companies, who’ve already made more money this year than most of us, make sure their airline communicates with Canadians when the chips are down.
It’s not much to ask.
I was shocked and very sad to hear about the death of CBC Edmonton reporter Janice Johnston this past Friday. I knew Janice quite well many years ago when I was in radio. She was News Director at CISN in Edmonton and I held the same position at 96 K-Lite. Unfortunately, like many others from my media days, I haven't seen Janice in many years, but certainly followed her exceptional reporting.
My condolences to her husband Scott Johnston and family.