I’m sure by now you’ve read about the 24 hour delay that befell some unfortunate Scoot passengers travelling from Sydney to Singapore over the weekend. Flight TR1 was scheduled to depart SYD at 1330 Sydney time on Saturday, but ended up departing 24 hours later on Sunday instead after a technical issue with the aircraft.
I’ve flown enough miles to know that airline delays are annoying but ultimately part and parcel of the travel experience. They’re random events that crop up from time to time, and that’s why you spend a bit more on travel insurance so you’re covered come what may.
But there are legitimate expectations that customers should have in the event of a prolonged delay, and Scoot failed miserably in this respect. Now, some might adopt the peanut-monkey approach and say you get what you pay for. But Scoot lays out quite clearly in their conditions of carriage and “Our Promise To You” segment of their website what customers can expect in the event of a delay. Here’s the most relevant section-
In the event we significantly delay a flight, we will, to the best of our ability, provide meals, accommodation, assistance in rebooking** and transportation to the accommodation to mitigate inconveniences experienced by our guests resulting from such flight delays. We will not be liable to carry out these mitigating efforts in cases where flight delays and misconnections^ arise due to factors beyond the airline’s control, for example, acts of God, acts of war, terrorism, etc., but will do so on a best effort basis.
The mechanical failure that happened in Sydney is clearly not a factor beyond the airline’s control, and therefore Scoot’s obligation to provide meals and accommodation still stands. Moreover, it doesn’t help that just a couple of days before this incident the Scoot CEO went on CNA with a puff piece editorial claiming that “the gap between low-cost and full-service airlines was smaller than most people imagined and flying budget did not have to be a big sacrifice in terms of experience.” (CNA reporter’s words)
In the CEO’s words:
“I think some of the negative perceptions around budget airlines have arisen from previous practices, as to whether or not we take care of our customers, particularly during times of disruption,” he said.
“The industry model has changed. It’s no longer the bad old budget airlines of the past, leaving you stranded. We all take care of our customers. We have to.
Nice sentiments, but that’s clearly not what happened here. Reports on the ground claim that some passengers were stranded at the terminal waiting for a bus that never came, others who got to the hotel found there were no rooms and had to sleep in a conference facility, still others got no food or drinks. You can read a summary of the accounts here.
Mishandling a delay is one thing. But Scoot’s communication strategy throughout the delay only compounded the issue. I have the benefit of one PR module in university. And based on that, I’m going to devise a better communications plan than what Scoot’s highly-trained, highly-drilled PR department could muster.
For an airline that wants to create a brand around straight talking and transparency, there’s been an appalling lack of official information. As of this morning, there is absolutely nothing on Scoot’s official Facebook page about what happened. No acknowledgement. No official statement. And this more than 40 hours after the delay.
In fact, the only hint that such an incident took place is a comment by a frustrated stranded traveler on one of Scoot’s unrelated posts, which received the textbook definition of a useless, vapid PR answer.
I mean, just think of how pathetic that response is. Here is a customer reaching out with an urgent request on a medium which value proposition is supposed to be instantaneous communication. And here’s Scoot replying more than 24 hours later.
And what do they say?
- They tell the passenger what he already knows “there was a delay because of a technical issue” (O RLY?)
- They fail to address any specific point he raises, lumping it together in the bland disposable wrapper of “feedback”
- And to add insult to injury, they give some vague reassurance that they will focus on “the issues identified in order to improve our service to you”
I get that some guy from the social media team sitting behind a desk in Singapore may not be empowered to help a stranded passenger in Sydney. But that’s where responsiveness and open channels come in. Had Scoot replied immediately saying that they were aware of the issue, at least the passenger writing in would have some reassurance that it was being looked into (whether that’s actually the case or not).
The prolonged silence from Scoot creates further frustration for passengers, because it’s like they’re talking to a brick wall. You’d be surprised how simply responding quickly can help to diffuse some tension in anxious passengers, even if nothing physically happens (I’m sending messages, I’m getting a response…someone is listening). The 24/7 nature of airline operations necessitates 24/7 staffing of social media channels, and that’s not what Scoot has done (this kind of reminds me of when SMRT launched a Twitter channel, then put in their profile that the channel was manned between 8am-5pm on weekdays. Yeah. Think about it).
Scoot’s silence is even more baffling given the CEO’s recent story in CNA about taking care of passengers during delays. The proximity of the story to this incident necessitates that he come out and address the situation immediate, even with a holding statement.
I fully agree that it’s important to have all the facts before saying something, but I’m not asking him to come to a conclusion here. I’m just asking that he acknowledge the incident happened and promise an investigation. I’d even give him bonus points if he doesn’t pretend like the CNA interview didn’t exist and said something along the lines of “This delay is even more unacceptable given what I discussed with CNA a few days ago. I said we’d take care of our passengers and we did not do that here. We have not walked the talk, and for that I am sorry.”
That’s be much nicer than “focusing on the issues identified in order to improve service to you”.
Weasel words and straw men
When pressed by reporters, Scoot first issued a statement claiming that 53 passengers accepted the offer of accommodation, and the rest were either Sydney residents or “did not want assistance”. (another PR protip: instead of being reactive and only issuing statements when reporters ask, why not get out there and control the narrative?).
It then became clear that this statement was entirely inaccurate, given how many passengers were unwillingly stranded (I wonder what it takes to be willingly stranded…) and Scoot provided an updated statement:
“We refer to the delayed flight TR1 departing Sydney for Singapore on 30 September 2017 as well as the feedback and reports surrounding Scoot’s efforts to mitigate the inconvenience caused to our passengers. Due to an aircraft technical issue, the flight had to be retimed and departed on 1 October 2017 afternoon.
During the delay, we arranged for refreshments. We tried to arrange for transport and hotel rooms for passengers that required overnight accommodation. Due to it being the busy school holiday season, there were limited options. We sincerely apologise for the inconvenience experienced due to the delay in ground transportation to the hotels, and miscommunication between our airline representatives and the hotels which resulted in some unavailability of rooms. We regret the disruptions to the travel plans of our passengers. Safety is of utmost importance to Scoot, and we will spare no effort in making sure all our flights operate safely.
There are a whole lot of weasel words and implicit excuses in that statement (“busy school holiday season”- not our fault! How were we supposed to know that the scheduled school holidays would take place during the time they were scheduled! / “some unavailability”- only a few people were affected!), but there’s one sentence that really gets my goat.
Safety is of utmost importance to Scoot, and we will spare no effort in making sure all our flights operate safely
This is a classic example of a straw man. No one is asking Scoot to compromise safety. It wasn’t like the passengers were saying “safety issues be damned, we want the flight to take off now!” What passengers were expecting was that Scoot would have adequate contingency plans to accommodate them while the problem was being fixed.
And this isn’t the first time Scoot has used this line. Here’s part of their statement when a flight from Hong Kong was delayed by more than 24 hours back in June 2015:
The safe operation of our airline is paramount and will not be compromised. Occasional technical issues nonetheless happen, to any airline, and the smaller the fleet, the larger the effect on schedules. As Scoot’s fleet grows from 6 to 11 aircraft this year our ability to absorb such events will significantly improve but, even so, Scoot is also reviewing the handling of these two flights to refine our processes and procedures.
When a flight to Perth was delayed by 22 hours (incidentally, on the same weekend), here’s what they said:
A delayed flight can be frustrating for passengers whose travel plans have been disrupted but Scoot would like to emphasise that safety is our top priority. We seek the kind understanding and patience of all the affected guests.”
See, safety is an easy dodge for airlines. Who can argue with safety? But I dislike it where airlines play the martyr card and say, in essence “oh, safety is paramount. We know we might take heat for delaying the flight, but we’re responsible and would never let a flight take off while it was unsafe to do so. So shoot your arrows, we’ll take them!”
No one is asking you to compromise on safety. What people are asking for is proper care during delays. Therefore, it’s completely disingenuous of the airline to trot out this line and miss the point entirely.
Scoot needs to figure out their communication strategy- and fast
This is not the first time Scoot has had an prolonged flight delay, nor the first time it was mishandled in so epic a manner. During the Perth and Hong Kong delays in 2015, customers were met with conflicting reasons, unclear instructions, and ground staff who were not empowered to do anything but get shouted at.
It’s painfully clear that despite what then-CEO Campbell Wilson said at the time, the airline has not learned from the experience. It is still making the same amateur PR missteps it made before. When Scoot was launched, the branding trumpeted it as an airline that “got it”. We know you want low fares and less bullshit! We’re, like, all over the social media and stuff because we give it to you straight! We’re a cool hip brand that calls our cabin screw Scootees (awww) and they’re all chock full of “Scootitude!” (the level of meaningless corporate branding in that term makes me want to hurl).
Scoot can brand themselves all they want, but the fact of the matter is that their actions do not reflect an airline that “gets it”, but one that is clueless and ill-prepared. Flight delays are something you can and should prepare for as an airline, both operationally and from a communications point of view. The worst part? This was all completely avoidable. If Scoot had a proper plan in place in Sydney airport and took care of its passengers, they might be annoyed, sure, but I guarantee things wouldn’t be this bad. As it is, they now have a planeload of passengers who may well never book another flight with Scoot again. And they’ll tell their friends. And their friends will tell their friends. Scoot’s laughably bad communications strategy is going to needlessly cost it a lot of goodwill.
So, TL;DR: hi scoot, I have zero crisis management training nor airline operational experience nor social media training but I’m quite certain I could do a better job than your PR team. I’ll even work for free, provided you can promise me I’ll never have to travel on your airline.
Call me maybe?