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Will grounded travel firms ever see reputation lift off?

Jess Alden

Yet more travel chaos demonstrates the risk to businesses who keep spurning chances to take steps to recover reputation. In the face of such obvious problems, why do they keep failing?

This summer looks like it will see restriction-free travel return to much of the world. With it have come reports of service failures across a travel industry forced to effectively close throughout the pandemic.

In the U.K. this week, many travellers have missed out on their break or had their plans turned upside down by service failings by several different travel companies. Transport Minister, Andrew Stephenson, last week commented on the travel industry failings, noting that the industry should have been better prepared for an increase in post-pandemic holidays and that the disruption was causing a lot of distress to those attempting to go on well-deserved breaks.

The travel sector on the other hand blames governments for shuttering their businesses in the pandemic and not providing support to reopen. This situation is coupled with the impact Brexit has had on staffing arrangements; in June this year it was reported that the UK could face up to 12 months of travel disruption as a result of ongoing staff shortages, as staff from the European market appear not to be applying for roles in the UK anymore. This reduced talent pool and increase in demand has undoubtedly increased the pressure on the industry.

Whoever is to blame, the reputation of the sector and individual businesses is taking a beating. European short haul carrier EasyJet had cancelled more than 200 flights before this week began and holiday provider TUI cancelled numerous flights but have just announced that they are cancelling 180 more from Manchester airport between now and the end of June. TUI have blamed disruption on operational and supply chain issues, with Manchester airport pointing to staff shortages as the reasons for the cancellations.

With the travel industry having taken an understandable hit over the last two years, in the shadow of a tumultuous time period prior to that (with former stalwarts like Thomas Cook and Monarch going under), will these reputation hits have lasting implications for these companies?

What happens if you can’t prevent an issue turning into a problem?

When dealing with crisis, prevention is always better than a cure; as many critics have been quick to point out, pent-up demand from those prevented from travelling for two years mixed with headcount radically lower than before the pandemic has seen providers face inevitable stress, but, given that the service failure has already happened, what next?

The key thing here is to prove to key stakeholders and those that matter that these issues are temporary and will not occur again. A common theme seen for companies surviving a crisis and maintaining their reputation is acting quickly to resolve issues and find solutions so that failings are accepted as an incident rather than a trait of the business.

It can help in plotting a way through these issues to think of the sources of crisis as primary and secondary failures.

A primary failure is something that goes wrong within a business initially; the cause being an issue that has the potential to turn into a problem, in this case, severe supply chain issues leading to flight and holiday cancellations. Where secondary failures are then seen, is when a company fails to manage an issue well, for example a poor response or failure to convince customers that it won’t happen again.

An example of a secondary failure seen this week would be EasyJet’s social media team referring understandably disgruntled consumers to their disruption help webpage via link without much further guidance (a Tweet that has since been removed).

In general, most companies, individuals, and entities can often survive a primary source of crisis, provided that the issue is not exacerbated by a secondary failure.

By building a resilient approach to reputation in a business, secondary failures can be avoided or minimised, turning the primary failure into a footnote in the company’s history. This takes us back to the prevention comments made by the transport secretary, noting that these companies should have pre-planned – what they also should have done was pre-plan and build reputation resilience by embedding key processes to protect their reputation from secondary failures – we wait to see if these crises will have a lasting effect on any of the key players in the industry, however, with the strain the industry has been put under in recent years, it would be unsurprising to see that some may not recover from these failings if not dealt with properly.

Lessons learned

And in terms of lessons that these companies can learn from? Let’s look at BA – who have been plagued by service failures, from the most recent example in February this year when it was estimated that 25,000 travellers were affected by the wholesale cancellation of BA’s short haul programme from Heathrow, to hackers obtaining payment details of customers in 2018, to IT issues wiping out entire weekend schedules of flights.

These failures have caused the business massive costs and reputational damage, and questions have been raised as to whether the company can complete a wholescale renovation of its IT systems to prevent issues happening again in the current climate. What was once known as the pinnacle of airline service now has a reputation for severe service failures across the board and, in a competitive market, it remains to be seen as to whether BA can turn its reputation around.

As the world goes back to normal – this industry is in for a tough reputational period and it will be those who have the most resilience to issues and who have implemented the best processes that will be able to navigate this tricky time ahead well.