KOCHI: On March 10, the world woke up to the news of an air crash involving Ethiopian Airlines flight ET 302 some 60 km off Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) taking 157 lives. The Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft was en route to Nairobi (Kenya). Earlier, on October 29, a Lion Air flight - flying the same model aircraft - crashed in Indonesia taking 189 lives.
There were pictures on social media in which immediate family members of the deceased had to bury empty coffins as the Ethiopian government said identification of the bodies would take at least six months. While investigations are underway, all fingers pointed to a technical glitch in the aircraft, which caused the two crashes within a span of just six months.
Incidentally, the otherwise proactive and vigilant Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) were amongst the last regulators to impose a ban on the Boeing 737 Max 8 from flying. While the need of the hour was to show empathy and concern for the family and friends of the deceased, one will have to retrospect if Boeing was a little laid back in expressing their empathy andconcern. It was only on March 17, almost a week after the incident, Boeing put out a statement that they have ordered an investigation into the crash while expressing their condolence and sympathy towards family and friends of the people killed in the crash.
Experts are of the view that Boeing went into denial mode and feared an impact on their sales and existing contracts, andtherefore took seven days to come out with a statement. By this time, the narrative had been set in motion across the world that people do not want to fly the Boeing 737 Max 8 again.
An industry where safety should be given utmost importance, flyers are left with no choice but to raise questions on the manufacturer, whether they actually cared about the safety of passengers. While it is sure Boeing does care for the safety of air travellers, they gave the public the impression that they were trying to wash their hands off. Many argue Boeing should have taken a bold step in immediately advising airlines to ground all their operational Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft and should have immediately issued a statement which stressed on the safety of passengers while showing empathy towards family members of the deceased.
Of course, there would have been a temporary dip in the sales or contracts. But is this more important than the sense of trust and goodwill a brand would have had, especially in the aviation sector? It gives the impression that Boeing chose to employ their public affairs mechanism in reaching out to the FAA withan aim to prevent the inevitable. The pressure was mounting on the FAA to order grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8, which they eventually did.
Incidentally, the company’s stock too took a beating, tumbling more than 10 per cent, in the aftermath of the crash. This once again shows that sales, stock returns and profitability are directly proportional to how a brand communicates. The brand equity is indispensable in the modern world. A brand which appears to be arrogant or when it shies away from communicating at a time of crisis is bound to receive an adverse reaction from the investors. We have several examples of stocks taking a beating when brands deliberately dodged tough questions.
Let us speak about the impact the Boeing crisis had in India. India is the fastest-growing aviation market. Apart from aviation enthusiasts, most Indian fliers would never give a thought to the type of aircraft they are flying in, but choose the airline depending on the service quality, punctuality etc. But after several incidents such as the Pratt & Whitney incident with Airbus and the recent Boeing 737 Max 8 incident, Indian flyers are becoming more inquisitive about the aircraft they get to fly.
While one can say without an iota of doubt that air travel continues to one of the safest mode of travel in India and across the world, it is high time the aircraft manufacturers directly communicated to the public at large and not just the airlines who are their direct customers, stressing upon the safety of the aircrafts they manufacture.
Brands also have to realise effective communication will have a direct impact not only on the brand equity but can also imbibe trust and therefore will positively impact sales and profitability in the long run. It is high time the communication department of companies got a seat in the boardroom.
Balagopal Padmakumar is the business head (West) of brand-comm, a unit of Madison World. The views expressed by the author are his own.