Scoot desperately, desperately wants you to know it’s a cool brand.
Its advertisements are lighthearted and whimsical. Its marketing team is quick to capitalize on social media drama. Cabin crew are called Scootees, the booking screen greets you with “hey gorgeous”, and you can’t go more than five lines on its corporate site without reading about “Scootitude“.
But beneath Scoot’s light, fluffy facade lurks a serious communications problem, and recent incidents have only served to make it painfully obvious.
The bad old days of budget airlines
Let’s start with a bit of context. Back in October 2017 I offered some advice to Scoot on how (not) to handle major delays, in light of a 24 hour delay that befell passengers on TR1, a Scoot flight from SYD-SIN.
Scoot’s handling of the incident, in my opinion, was abysmal. There was no semblance of a proper crisis management plan, the logistics to attend to stranded passengers were woefully inadequate, and there was a consistent lack of on-ground communication and timely updates. Customers who tried to reach out to Scoot via its social media pages were stonewalled throughout the entire incident.
It didn’t help that a few days before, Lee Lik Hsin, the Scoot CEO, asserted in an interview with Channel NewsAsia that “the bad old days” of budget airlines were gone.
“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.”
The timing of the interview couldn’t have been worse, but you might be charitable and write it off as a really bad coincidence. I mean, even five star airlines have bad days.
Here’s the problem: there’s nothing to suggest that anything has changed in the way Scoot handles or communicates during major delays.
Scoot has had seven major delays in the past two months
The past two months have provided plenty of opportunities for Scoot to show how contingency management plans have improved since that ill-fated Sydney flight. There have been seven major technical or utilization delays in this period, three of which lasted more than 24 hours:
- 9 November: TR734 from SIN to TXL delayed 10 hours
- 21 November: TR18 from SIN to MEL delayed 8 hours
- 25 November: TR616 from BKK to SIN delayed 7 hours
- 26 November: TR869 from BKK to SIN delayed 29 hours
- 18 December: TR713 from ATH to SIN delayed more than 2 days
- 30 December: TR899 from TPE to SIN delayed almost 2 days
- 1 January: TR100 from SIN to CAN delayed 14 hours
Now, let’s put aside for a second the fact that delays of this length shouldn’t be happening with such frequency. What concerns me is that when you read the news reports or accounts of customers on these flights, the exact same issues keep popping up: the absence of timely communication and updates, poor contingency planning and a lack of frontline staff empowerment. It’s as if nothing has been learned since Sydney.
Let’s zoom in on one of the recent delays: TR899 from TPE to SIN. If you have the time, do read the detailed account of one passenger, because the whole thing reads like a gigantic snafu. To summarize- TR899 was scheduled to take off from Taipei on Sunday, Dec 30 at 4.10pm, and arrive in Singapore at 8.45pm on the same day. When did passengers finally get to Singapore? 2.56am on Jan 1 (updated: previously wrongly cited Jan 2) Wow.
In stressful situations like this, customers want the assurance that someone is listening and working on the problem. That’s why they turn to social media, supposedly the fastest way of getting a response. You might think that a social media-savvy brand like Scoot would be all over this, using its various channels to engage customers, issue statements and provide reassurance.
Well, here’s a post made by a passenger stranded on TR899, asking Scoot for assistance on the day of the incident.
How long did Scoot take to reply? Just shy of 46 hours.
Another passenger tweeted Scoot for help:
Response time? 46 hours (that’s consistency right there).
At least they got a response. This other passenger is still waiting for one…
Think I’m cherry picking examples? Look at their Facebook page. Read their Twitter feed. Note the average response time. It’s measured in days, not minutes. I get that a customer service rep sitting in Singapore may not be empowered to resolve a situation thousands of miles away. But like I said, timely communication is a way of alleviating passenger stress- it lets them know they’ve not been left for dead.
Perhaps it’s not Scoot’s fault. The incident did happen over the New Year’s period, and you can hardly expect anyone to be working then…right?
Remember how SMRT started a Twitter account after the major outage in 2011, and everyone laughed that its profile said the channel was manned “9am-6pm, Mon-Fri (excl public holidays)?” If that isn’t the textbook definition of “not getting it”, I don’t know what is.
So surely a young and hip brand like Scoot wouldn’t make the same mistake, would they? I’ll let this excerpt from their Facebook page speak for itself:
Answering queries from 9am to 6pm, Mondays to Fridays, would be just fine, if the airline only operated from 9am to 6pm, Mondays to Fridays. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Real-time operations necessitate real-time communication, whether you’re a full service carrier or a budget airline.
Look at how JetBlue, a budget airline in the US, uses Twitter to take care of its customers. Note the lightning fast response times- people are tweeting delays, baggage losses, and other questions and getting replies within 20, 30 minutes.
These responses may not “fix” anything, in the sense that flights are still delayed and baggage is still lost. But dammit, at least someone is listening. It’s amazing how much customers will be willing to forgive if they just know they’re not talking to a brick wall. Why Scoot hasn’t figured this out yet is anyone’s guess.
The “safety comes first” strawman
Scoot likes to project the image of a straight talking, no nonsense brand. Why then, are its PR responses to these incidents anything but?
June 2015, TZ220– “The safe operation of our airline is paramount and will not be compromised.”
June 2015, TZ8– “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.”
October 2017, TR1– “Safety is of utmost importance to Scoot, and we will spare no effort in making sure all our flights operate safely.”
November 2018, TR734– “Safety is critical and Scoot will always ensure that this is utmost in our considerations.”
December 2018, TR899– “Safety is of utmost priority to Scoot, and we sincerely apologise for the inconvenience caused to our customers’ travel plans.”
Sense a trend? No attempt to explain why the on-ground contingency plan was so abysmally executed, or what they’re going to do to prevent it from happening in the future. No acknowledgement of why people are so cheesed off. Just the hackneyed “safety comes first” motherhood statement.
I know why they do it. Safety is an easy dodge for an airline, because once you mention “safety”, who can argue with you? But here’s the thing: no one is asking Scoot to compromise safety. What people are asking for is a well-conceptualized and executed contingency plan. To be taken care of during a delay, to receive timely updates and to know that someone is working on the problem. Safety is the bare minimum that people should expect from an airline, and you don’t win brownie points by promising that to your customers.
Sadly, this attempt to reframe the narrative works, at least for some people…
It’s frustrating beyond words that Scoot keeps trotting out this line whenever things go wrong. We get it- you’re big on safety. Couldn’t you also be big on customer care too?
Scoot’s CEO wants you to believe that the bad old days of budget airlines are gone. Unfortunately, the record does not match the rhetoric.
When we fly a budget airline, we accept certain trade-offs for low fares. I know my meal won’t be free. I know I’ll have to pay for a bag. I know I’ll be upsold at every opportunity. That’s the unspoken agreement. I just expect the airline to get me there on safely and on time, failing which I expect them to have a proper contingency management plan. That’s non-negotiable, and that’s what Scoot has not delivered on.
The past two months should be fair warning to anyone considering flying with Scoot- if everything goes according to plan, you’ll have a cheap, unmemorable flight. But if not? All bets are off. And all the light and breezy marketing in the world won’t make you feel better.