Malaysian Airlines CEO says the power of social media means airlines must react quickly

Swift communication is key to maintaining the respect and loyalty of customers following any sort of disruptive incident, according to Malaysian Airlines CEO Peter Bellew.

Speaking during the CEO Insight Debate at the 73rd IATA AGM in Cancun, Bellew said the power of social media means airlines have just a 15-minute window to apologize, and prevent the story from escalating.

In a fascinating and insightful discussion—which also featured United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, Volaris CEO Enrique Beltranena, and Scandinavian Airlines CEO Rickard Gustafson—Bellew gave the example of his airline’s response to an incident on a Malaysian Airlines flight from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur last week.

You can’t sit on the sidelines anymore. The speed and the proliferation of social media will overtake you

A passenger had tried to enter the cockpit, and also threatened passengers with a device. The aircraft was immediately returned to Melbourne, where the passenger was reprimanded and arrested.

“I think you have 15 minutes or less to say sorry,” said Bellew. “Last week, we got the call from the pilot saying, ‘I think we may have an incident’. As soon as we got the call we worked out the press statement.

“Fifteen minutes later the aircraft had landed, but within 14 minutes we had the first statement out. That got copied on social media, and dictated where the story went.”

Bellew says social media’s vast reach means airlines must communicate quickly and effectively.

“Because the aircraft was flying below 4,000 feet, people were able to live stream what was happening on the aircraft on Facebook,” he said. “That’s the pressure you’re under now. You can’t sit on the sidelines anymore.

"The speed and the proliferation of social media will overtake you. You have to take control of the story.”

Bellew believes the response of senior staff on the ground can also play a key role in reassuring customers.

You must have that mentality to see the customer and say you’re sorry

“A lot of airlines are good at getting senior staff out on the scene, very fast,” he said. “There’s nothing better than if the top people are there on the spot.

“We had an incident last year where there was very bad turbulence on a flight over the Bay of Bengal, and there were a number of us at the gate of the airport when the aircraft landed to apologize.

"You must have that mentality to see the customer and say you’re sorry.”

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