Transport Airlines

How Can Airlines Cope in Crisis When Social Media Breaks the Sound Barrier?

Aug 05, 2014 2:35 pm

Skift Take

Airlines have many procedural challenges to overcome in order to bring social media awareness to the cabin, but they’re going to have to do it and they’d better do it fast.

— Marisa Garcia

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A passenger aboard Qatar Airways QR023 today made a bomb threat which caused the flight to return to Manchester airport with fighter jet escort.

The event was documented live on social media by another passenger onboard, Josh Hartley. One complaint was that cabin crew had failed to notify passengers of what was happening, even as Hartley took pictures of the fighter jets and alerted the world of the status of his flight.

In today’s connected skies, the cabin is no longer an isolated environment. Things that happen onboard don’t just stay onboard until the airline has a chance to respond by traditional means.

There have been a number of safety-related incidents onboard this year which have made their way to social media faster than the airline could address the matter, but today’s incident was probably the most comprehensively covered by passengers.

And this last is the real problem. Because of the nature of the threat, the crew could not reveal the true cause of events happening–to avoid panic onboard. Should this have happened on a disconnected flight, in the print-media world of olden days, there would have been no repercussions until after long after landing, when the airline had the chance to control the story. The story today, happens live. Though airlines have gotten smart about using their social media teams to build customer relationships, the procedures which drive cabin crises have not kept up with the speed of social.

In a connected flight, like QR023, the crew needed special training on how to communicate, and avoid the dissemination of partial and worrying information to the outside, by passengers who were completely in the dark.

News media were already tweeting the pictures the passenger shared on Twitter and Instagram, and covering the story, before the airline had a chance to react.

Additionally, passengers were then being updated by the media live about what was happening–which could itself have generated panic.

For its part, Qatar had the following statement as the event was taking place, as published on the Independent which, along with a number of news media outlets, covered this story in depth minute-by-minute.

The crew on-board had received a threat about a possible device on board and Qatar Airways immediately took all the necessary precautions to alert British authorities.

The crew is now fully assisting police at the airport with their inquiries. The safety and well-being of our passengers and crew is our top priority.

As this is a matter of a police investigation, we cannot comment further at this time.

The Manchester police services did a good job of responding to the Social Media buzz by providing timely updates which helped disseminate accurate and timely information.

Qatar’s own response on Twitter to the incident came nearly an hour and a half after the first Tweet by Hartley.

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