Airlines have been unwillingly transported to an age of instant customer feedback. Viral sharing of negative flight experiences is an unavoidable part of that.
1) The Media are Mean
That inhuman blob that is “the Media” like to jump on stories of anything going viral on social media and make airlines look bad. This is a narrative I’ve heard repeated from a section of the airline and travel related audience following the very public incidents on United and American Airlines flights.
I take issue with this perspective because “The Media” are just doing their jobs. Reporters aren’t creating these events, they are reporting on them as the story develops. These incidents are a symptom of something and that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.
Complaining that someone noticed your spots isn’t a cure for the measles.
2) Airlines are Horrible
The larger travel audience likes to complain about air travel. This isn’t a new phenomenon. It is not the result of recent flying conditions or of recent negative coverage of the airline industry.
In fact, pointing out the negative aspects of air travel goes back decades. It was the source of great entertainment dating further back to the Carol Burnett show and the comedy cult classic: Airplane.
Hey, even Lucy got in on the act (with Carol Burnett).
Airlines are not horrible.
They get us where we need to be, better than ever before and for less than ever before. We get to fly. Which is still amazing, when you really think about it.
But I have a theory about why we love to hate on airlines.
3) It’s all too much.
(And that’s an opportunity to do more.)
I suspect that almost all people flying are afraid to fly, and only a very few are aware of this fear.
There’s something intrinsically unnatural about trusting your life to strangers in a crowded metal (or carbon fibre) tube powered by highly volatile fuel flying miles above the ground where we belong. (There. Doesn’t that make you feel better?)
Cars are far more dangerous than planes. Long-haul driving can be more uncomfortable and will never get you so far, but at least people feel that they are in control of the situation.
My point is that this fear, even when it’s suppressed, is understandable. It is a source of stress. Add to this the powerlessness of the air travel process and the stress levels reach dangerous peaks.
Crew and staff also feel stress, but they are in the service industry. A spirit of service must always dominate, as well as a serious appreciation for security and safety.
As the skies get more crowded, the stress levels on both sides will need to be managed.
A gentler service mindset by airline and airport staff may ease the stress of air travellers, but staff will need help to manage their own stress. For this, they will need training and support. Airlines and airports will also need to better screen for personality types when hiring. Frontline staff should be calm and friendly, even under pressure.
Airlines and airports will also need to raise staff awareness of what it means to work in a viral world. Staff must behave as if they are performing their jobs on YouTube and Facebook at all times.
It isn’t fair, but it is true. Hire and train for that because there is no going back from our always-on world. Every Jane and Joe you meet are “The Media”.
Again, American Airlines handled the incident appropriately, which shows that its PR and social media team is very well trained. Look to the recruiting and training profiles of those “frontline staff behind the scenes.”
Many of those qualities are needed on the aeroplane stage too.
It is all too much. The scrutiny on the industry now is greater than ever before. But it is also an opportunity to do more by identifying systemic faults and making them right.