High flying hubris leads to hard landing for British Airways


30 May 2017 | 1:50 min read

The airline industry has long been a role model for companies wishing to understand what crisis management is all about. Ever since the 1988 Pan Am Lockerbie disaster, carriers have developed and proved their ability to communicate well in a crisis.

Well, they would, wouldn’t they – given that Pan Am’s utterly inept communication led to it going bust.

So why, 30 years later, has British Airways (BA) – the so-called ‘world’s favourite airline’ – got it so wrong these past few days? It’s not just that their IT systems shut down in the biggest failure of its kind in the industry. What is shocking is what they did afterwards.

In terms of public statements by BA’s CEO Alex Cruz, that was precisely… nothing.

Not a word for hours. Then a third-rate apology. No explanation, no assurances.

Meanwhile, the journeys of thousands of customers around the world were plunged into chaos. People in Britain were assured that their flights would leave on Saturday evening, eight hours after the failure. When they got to Heathrow, it was full of people who had no idea what was going on. Then BA said they would not be flying at all that night.

And, of course, the obverse was happening – thousands of those making their way to Heathrow from all over the world were unable to board flights. This caused chaos for BA passengers, as well as dozens of airports that were serving them and other airline customers.

Staff were unable to help. They complained that they had no instructions from ‘management’, who were always unavailable in meetings. Meanwhile, the media filled up with stories of how much damage this event had caused to individuals and families.

And what did Mr Cruz do next? Sent out another apology, then an email to staff – leaked of course – which began, “Guys” … and pointedly told them they were either part of the management team fixing the problem or not. So the many hundreds of staff members surrounded by angry customers were not part of the ‘fixing’ team? Given they were not getting any help from above, this was probably true. However, it must have felt like a kick in the teeth to those on the front line.

Mr Cruz also posted a video of himself in a high-vis jacket, sitting in his office! The Times (London) suggested this was beyond satire – a reminder of the spoof Airplane movie.

No one can doubt this was a difficult crisis to manage. But Mr Cruz is in charge of a global airline business, advised by top professionals. Is this not the very kind of risk his board would have identified as having the potential to cause major damage to the company’s reputation?

Matters have not been helped by emerging stories reminding the public that BA has been slashing staff numbers to compete with budget airlines.

International relations have also suffered, as we have been reminded that BA outsourced its IT to India not long ago.

Many airlines have managed crises where lives were lost in crashes, and some, such as Air New Zealand, came out with their reputations not only intact but even strengthened.

The older fliers among us will recall how BA became known as the ‘world’s favourite’. It was a construct of their advertising agency, who used the word ‘favourite’ to imply the airline carried more passengers than any other. 

Can BA still claim to be the ‘world’s favourite’? No. They’ve finally disposed of that claim in the dustbin of hubris.

No bias by this author, but his wife was caught up in this chaos in Venice and endorses every word!

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