Flying recently to a destination I had not been to for two years, I was surprised to see the check-in personnel handling a major carrier’s flight wearing the uniform of the airport services – and not, as in the past, the airline’s uniform. On reflection, I remembered that at my departure airport the check-in for another major airline had also been handled by a so-called “Ground Handling” company, although, in that instance, the personnel wore the airline’s uniform. Clearly, for economic reasons, even major and well-established carriers are increasingly out-sourcing their airport-based customer services to external sub-contractors. And the passengers are oblivious to the fact.
In fact, most travellers, especially those booking tickets online or through a travel agency, rarely interact with an airline ground staff. But when they do, in many instances it is likely to be with an airline’s sub-contractor.
This is all fine when all goes well. But what happens in a crisis and especially when there is a major incident or an accident? Most airline contracts with their airport and ground handling service providers require the sub-contractors to provide immediate assistance - including much needed emergency response services - for the airline until the carrier’s team members arrive on site.
But what about the communications aspect? We all know the media will converge on the airport in search for any possible “spokespersons”. They will spot the affected carrier’s uniforms when these are worn. They will go to the check-in counters or sales desks in order to seek information from the persons working at them. The media don’t make any distinctions. As far as they are concerned, the subcontractor’s personnel are airline employees and formal representatives.
But how are these personnel being “prepared” for this role? Traditionally, the understanding is that sub-contractors “are not to speak to the press”. Sure! From a company’s perspective, that seems obvious as they are not airline staffers. And in any case, rank and file staff members are not allowed to talk to the media anyway. This isn’t necessarily a helpful strategy. The media will just see them as airline employees running away from the cameras, and, by implication, as the airline shirking its duty and responsibility to communicate with and inform everyone affected by the crisis. This will generate a very negative perception of the carrier at the affected location and even beyond.
It seems only logical that Crisis Communications preparedness should therefore include the out-sourced sales agents and check-in personnel representing the airlines at out-stations, as they will be on the “front line”. While they are not to communicate as entitled “spokespersons” from the airline’s headquarters, they can still make a valuable contribution. Instead of leaving them in limbo, they should be given clear guidance and guidelines on what they can and cannot say, and how to say it, even if it is just to refer the media to the company’s press office while expressing regret and showing concern and compassion to journalists, persons concerned about loved ones who may be on the affected flight, customers worried about other flights, etc.
The details for this “Communication” should be coordinated and agreed jointly between the airline and the ground handling agents. From the outset, carriers using outsourced personnel in roles involving engagement with customers and passengers, should update their crisis communications plans and training to include and prepare these service providers so that they can be true representatives and ambassadors when they are needed most.