When a long chain of events led to the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in March 2011 only some experts had been aware of the risk. For years and years Japan’s nuclear industry had fostered the impression of absolute safety and created what later became known as the “anzen shinwa”, the safety myth. This narrative was one reason why the operator’s crisis communication was given little to no credibility in the days and months following the accident. This safety myth was a result of an over-reassurance to fight any doubts in the safety of nuclear power. Ironically, it led to the exact opposite: the complete loss of trust in the industry in many parts of the world after the accident had unmasked the myth.
Obviously, everything human beings do can be risky. Even if you fearfully spend your whole life at home, there is a good chance that you die in a household accident. In the US 2.5 times more people die from accidental poisoning and unintentional falls each year than in a car crash. No one would ever claim that there is no risk of ever having an accident at all. But over-reassurance sets a safety standard that can’t possibly be met. As a side effect it obfuscates the view on real fact-based figures that would support the safety case more effectively than a myth narrative ever could. Actually, nuclear power is, even including the accidents of Fukushima and Chernobyl, by far the safest form of energy with the lowest mortality rate per terawatt hour of energy produced. But yes, accidents can happen.
So, is it really necessary to use a narrative that suggests that there might not be a real risk because there has been no proven transmission of the coronavirus in flight so far? Those who follow that approach might be lucky and will claim afterwards that it was the right strategy. Fair enough. But one proven case of an infection or even just the speculation about it could be enough to substantially harm the credibility of the airline or even the industry. Journalists and media will have a field day and one can only imagine the memes that would spread via social media instantly.
So what could airlines do instead – and there are already great examples - to promote their product and maintain the trust of customers that want to get back up in the air to travel? Here are six suggestions:
1. Trust your customers’ intelligence:
People know that there is no such thing as absolute safety. There is no reason not to admit that there is always a certain risk of getting infected during the COVID-19 pandemic, no matter what you do. But as far as we know, the risk of contracting the virus "in flight" is not higher than for any other comparable activity. Don’t say that there is no proof of a transmission on board an air craft, as people will only hear “There is no proof, YET!” COVID-19 has surprised us more than once, already.
2. Use good arguments wisely and put them in context
Air quality and air flow on board an aircraft for sure is an asset compared to the situation in other transportation means. Aircraft are equipped with highly effective air filters that indeed meet the standards of those in an OR and the air in the cabin is completely exchanged every three minutes or so. This doesn’t mean that there is no infection risk at all. Passengers might still touch contaminated surfaces for example. But air quality is an argument when airlines get asked why middle seats are still sold. It’s a strong argument if it is put in the right context an if you don’t implicitly suggest that there is no risk at all by saying that cabin air is “virus free”. Make no mistake, this will be the claim the host will throw at you when you have to “stand trial” at a talk show once there is a proven case of transmission.
3. Remember that travelling is a people’s business
Inflight experience and the safe conduction of air travel is as much a matter of skilled and well trained staff as it is one of great technology. It is the right thing to feature the high tech that makes the flight safe and enjoyable. However, it is your staff that creates that certain feeling of being safe on board. It is your staff that makes people trust the airline. Make their dedication a story, too. Show your customers how your staff is prepared to take good care of them. One great example of an airline following this approach is Austrian and its charming campaign to promote its restart.