Commentary: Do airlines have a duty of care to passengers during flight delays?

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SINGAPORE: About two weeks ago, passengers on a Scoot flight TZ297 were stranded in Bangkok for close to 24 hours and initially directed to call customer service for advice.

Tired, angry passengers were frustrated, because they couldn’t wait to get to their destination but were left wondering about their fate in those 24 hours.

With this incident, some say there is imperative for airlines to safeguard precious corporate reputation because angry passengers can leave remnants of the unfortunate incident in cyberspace, long after the unhappy episode.

BUDGET AIRLINES ARE AT HIGHER RISK OF DELAYS

Indeed, air travel delays seem increasingly common not least because of the rise of social media channels that act as outlets for unhappy passengers to unleash unhappiness over negative experiences.

But low-cost carriers like Scoot can inconvenience their passengers for longer periods with fewer options for service recovery compared to full-service carriers due to operational constraints.

Airline experts say unlike full-service carriers with bigger fleets that can deploy replacement aircrafts fairly quickly, low-cost carriers run a tight ship. Many have a smaller fleet and less spare aircraft, given the high costs of leaving airplanes idle in hangers, in addition to parking and maintenance fees.

In another flight delay incident, eight hours after Scoot flight TZ8 was supposed to depart Changi Airport on Jun 20, 2015, passengers were told that the next possible flight out would only leave the day after. (Photo: Jhai)

Yet, a lot schedule their flights on the presumption that their aircraft can be turned around quickly, within 30 minutes.

In an incident where the airplane may require complex repairs, the situation can devolve into a blackbox for airline crew, ground staff and passengers. Those who work in the industry say it is often difficult for the repair crew to diagnose what is wrong, or estimate how long repairs will take.

Even if the delay is short and needed repairs are minor, it is almost impossible for the airplane to “catch up” to the rest of its schedule.

Ground handling staff, usually contracted from another company, are also challenged to provide accommodation during an extensive or overnight delay. Authorisation from the low-cost carrier is required to make accommodation arrangements and by then, it may be too late to recover goodwill.

DUTY OF CARE, CONTRACTUAL AGREEMENT

In this context, the crux of the problem in the communication blackbox during such flight delays stems from this: Low-cost carriers often see themselves as companies selling air transport from one place to another. But passengers are not buying transport; they are buying safe, timely and comfortable travel.

But arguably, low-cost carriers have a duty of care to the passenger in the event of a delay. For if business decision are made to carry out operations based on razor thin resources, then should there not be commensurate help extended to passengers when those resources are strained and delays occur?

So airlines, including low-cost carriers, should be held to higher expectations when flight delays occur, because they have a duty of care to their passengers.

Earlier in May, passengers were stranded after British Airways cancelled flights from Heathrow Airport and Gatwick (Photo: AFP/Daniel Leal-Olivas)

Some say many travellers are buying travel insurance and pooling risk today precisely because they recognise the unpredictability of air travel. They argue that the responsibility for compensation should therefore be borne by travel insurance companies, not airlines.

Airlines, including many low-cost carriers, recognise this. “For other direct costs arising from a delay such as hotel and ground transport expenses, we recommend that you always be covered by travel insurance”, reads a page from Scoot’s website.

Passengers themselves recognise this. In its 2016 annual report, the General Insurance Association noted that travel insurance in Singapore continued to gain traction last year, as consumer awareness continued to increase. This is probably due to the frequency of travel disruptions experienced by Singaporean travellers.

A survey by Chubb Travel Insurance in 2015 reported that 80 per cent of Singapore travellers have experienced a travel mishap, with flight delays cited as the most frequent cause.

But are these good enough reasons to pass the buck to insurance companies?

BE HUMAN, IT’S JUST GOOD BUSINESS

Airlines should adopt a human and honest approach in their communication, because it is good business to do so. Customers will evaluate product reliability, performance and reputation risks against price savings. Repeated service failures will cause consumers to think that the promise of fuss-free, convenient air travel that many low-cost carrier airlines offer is false advertising.

Managing the fallout from a delay can build goodwill and enhance branding, sometimes requiring only one person to make that sum difference. Tony Fernandez, CEO of AirAsia has cultivated an image as a responsive leader committed to his employees and passengers.

Unlike the other low-cost carriers who shy away during a crisis, his recent post on Jun 27 when his pilot and crew managed to avert a potential engine failure was widely praised and received 35,000 likes with 4,500 shares.

As the saying goes, “a friend in need is a friend indeed”. The extension of timely goodwill may pay off in profit. According to a report by Harvard Business Review, customers with the best experiences with a brand spend 140 per cent more than those with the poorest experiences.

IATA had projected earlier this year that global net profit for the airline industry worldwide was expected to slide to US$29.8 billion in 2017. (Photo: AFP/Miguel Medina)

Airlines should also make better use of mobile technology to disseminate updates to manage the fallout from a delay. This could give passengers more control to plan their time more productively instead of sitting around for hours on end, and reduce frustrations.

Congregating large groups of demoralised passengers, thin on patience is a recipe for disaster. If it is necessary to hold them in one place, airlines should try to break the passengers up into smaller groups at different nearby holding areas with easy access to amenities and food.

LOWER PRICED TICKET FOR HIGHER RISK OF DELAY?

Airlines, especially low-cost carriers, should also make use of their social media platform to disseminate information to educate passengers on how they handle flight delays, what passengers can do when such delays happen, and how to apply for travel insurance to increase awareness of their business model.

More importantly, if the contract that low-cost carriers offer is “a lower priced ticket for a higher risk of delay”, this trade-off should be made upfront to manage expectations upfront. Businesses that want to enhance customer understanding of such a business model can benefit from taking a page from IKEA’s playbook which reminds customers why they have to bring home their new furniture themselves.

This is not in the realm of impossibility.

When Tham Wai Yip, aged 42, was travelling with his family to Tianjin from Singapore on Scoot TZ188 on Dec 8, 2016, his plane had to turn around and return to Singapore three hours into the flight. The plane took another three hours to reach Changi Airport. Upon arrival, they boarded another aircraft.

While Scoot only provided them a simple breakfast meal onboard the new flight and a S$50 Scoot voucher, Mr Tham wasn’t too bothered. He said he could claim from his travel insurance for the flight disruption.

When asked if he would take the airline again, Mr Tham said he would evaluate the price savings versus the risk and see if it is worth taking.

It seems that Mr Tham’s expectations had been successfully managed.

Wong Pei Wen lectures at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University. She has held senior leadership roles in marketing and communication in the Asia Pacific at various technology and telecommunications companies, where she built new business and developed new markets.

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