From left: CNN’s Richard Quest; Rickard Gustafson, SAS CEO; Oscar Munoz, United CEO; Peter Bellew, Malaysia CEO; Enrique Beltranena, Volaris CEO. Image via IATA

APEX Insight: As a result of social media and in-flight connectivity, airlines are confronted by live sharing of operational crises and onboard incidents which quickly go viral and can do serious harm to airline brands. Is this the new status-quo, or can the industry adapt and get ahead of today’s speed of sharing?

Speaking to CNN’s Richard Quest during the CEO Q&A panel at this year’s IATA Annual General Meeting (AGM), SAS CEO Rickard Gustafson, United CEO Oscar Munoz, Malaysia Airlines CEO Peter Bellew, and Volaris CEO Enrique Beltranena answered poignant questions on what airlines can do to respond to sparks on social media before they blaze out of control.

“My first reaction should have been to do what I ultimately did, which was to apologize first.” — Oscar Munoz, United CEO

Quest asked Oscar Munoz to share what he had learned from the brand crisis United suffered following the incident of the forced removal of Dr. Dao from a United Airlines flight, operated by one of its regional airline partners. “For us, who have been around for a long period of time, the policies and procedures that we have in our companies are built on things like safety, and have become too rigid,” he explained. Munoz emphasized that safety is paramount, but that corporate communications procedures and crisis management should allow for a more flexible and considered reply during “a crisis of that magnitude.” “My first reaction should have been to do what I ultimately did, which was to apologize first,” he said.

According to Bellew, during a crisis, in today’s social media-driven news cycle, “you’ve got 15 minutes or less to say sorry.” Beltranena suggested CEOs have less than 10 minutes to apologize. But Munoz argued that sometimes – especially if that early window to respond has lapsed – it is better to wait. “I think you have more time than you think to respond to this and to respond correctly. The escalation is critically important,” he said. “If I had waited a little more time, I think my initial response would have been different.”

“You’ve got 15 minutes or less to say sorry.” — Peter Bellew, Malaysia Airlines CEO

Bellew argued that airlines and executives should be prepared to respond immediately when the unexpected happens. “It’s all about communication,” he said. “There’s no excuse now. There’s secure instant messaging systems where, within an organization, you can get the message around in seconds … I think saying sorry is really important. And if you don’t know the answer, actually saying ‘we don’t know’ works out. But you can’t sit in the sidelines anymore.”

Gustafson agreed that airlines must have an emergency response plan, prepared in advance, so that the organization as a whole can respond appropriately during a crisis: “I agree that you have a very short time to react, and the first thing that you need to do is to release a more generic message. Then you can build on that. You need to have some pre-prepared statements that you can get out there very quickly. You need to have people responding ASAP on social media, because that’s where the whole thing is going to explode.” Gustafson also said that it’s critical to train and empower staff, especially on the front lines, to respond appropriately based on these prepared replies and on crisis communications procedures.

IATA has published best practices for crisis communications in a digital age, and offers consultation and crisis communications training for airlines and airports. In its guidelines, IATA emphasizes that CEOs should be visible and actively engaged. “While there are significant variations in the expectations and performance of leaders from different cultures, geographies and business sectors, some findings are universal. One is that in the midst of a crisis, it is not enough to simply ‘show empathy’ or apologize for the resulting distress or disruption,” writes IATA. “If words are not aligned with actions, an ‘apology’ is simply empty rhetoric.”

IATA suggests that airlines build trust by accepting responsibility, committing to “a concrete plan of action” and communicating with honesty and sincerity throughout. “Above all, it requires the personal involvement of the leader,” IATA states. “The primary role of the CEO in a crisis is therefore to be visible – to the families, to the other parties involved in the response (including government agencies and regulators), to the employees – and of course, to the news media.”