Hooray, there’s life in us yet – three things we can learn from Air Berlin’s crisis PR

Air Berlin is descending into chaos and heading for a reputation as a kind of skid row of the air. For example, on 1 June this year, Europe’s seventh-largest airline cancelled 44 flights – just on that day – because there was either no crew available or no suitable aircraft at the departure airport. Some passengers were informed, some were not. Others were given completely contradictory information. Some were given refreshment vouchers but often they were unusable because the shops in the airport were already shut. On-board drinks could only be paid for in cash. The crew recommended that the passengers register their complaints on the Internet. Contributors to passenger forums are discussing whether it is still possible to book flights with Air Berlin at all.

The PR strategy used by the ailing airline to address this crisis is extremely interesting. Air Berlin has gone on the offensive and is stating in full page advertisements in the daily newspapers what it is doing to become more reliable. For example, it has recruited 700 new flight attendants. “As of now, don’t hesitate to expect more from us (and no, we don’t mean longer queues)” says the current campaign. I think it’s good that the airline is addressing the quality problems and has not resorted to glib phrases such as “we apologise and regret any inconvenience caused” and is instead taking a self-mocking tone. It shows courage, composure and respect for their passengers. Air Berlin is not automatically assuming that their apologies will be accepted. We are not used to this level of empathy from mobility providers.

I find the subtext of the advertising campaign strategically clever: it suggests that the airline has prospects for the future, skilfully guiding perceptions towards the subject of punctuality and conveying that it is once again flying high. For a company with an uncertain future, sitting on huge debts amounting to over a billion euros and repeatedly unable to deliver the flights it has scheduled, this is an important interim target. Recruiting 700 employees in one fell swoop indicates a future-oriented attitude. It’s not so important that the new staff members were recruited via Youtube in mass interviews. The requirements were that they were at least 1.6 meters in height, had no visible tattoos, were in possession of a passport and were able to swim. According to a report from a newspaper journalist, interviews at a hotel in Berlin resulted in the employment of every candidate. She quoted one participant who said “you’d have to be very dim not to be taken on.”

Air Berlin is relying on more than hastily recruited personnel and the power of words. The airline is marketing cheap tickets to the USA and the Caribbean at a bargain price of €399 – return flights, no less. Bookings are going very well, and indicate that the company’s PR in response to the crisis is working. At any rate, there have been attempts to manage serious crises which have had less effect. However, Air Berlin’s crisis PR also shows what PR of this nature can and cannot do because the real problem has still not been solved. Nobody knows if the company, which is making a daily loss of €3 million (!), is a holiday airline, a cut-price airline or a long-haul specialist. It remains to be seen whether it is a good idea to rely on the bitterly contested long-haul market to the USA. The crisis PR from Air Berlin is not able to throw any light on the fundamental strategic issues. However, it is a successful distraction and an effective placebo.

This article was also published in German at W&V.

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