Flight 1549: The Importance of Good Public Relations

The story from Fox-TV 61, in Hartford, Connecticut, had this to say about one aspect of the aftermath of the Hudson River crash of US Airways Flight 1549:

Some airlines apparently stop at nothing to charge customers above and beyond the price of the airline tickets. Spirit Airlines is trying to charge passengers extra fees after canceling a flight, which forced the passengers to be on the plane that landed in the river Thursday.

Rob and Jeff Kolodjay were scheduled to fly on Spirit Airlines to a golf vacation with four other friends on Thursday out of LaGuardia in New York City. Their flight got cancelled, and they were rebooked on to US Airways flight 1549.

While the Kolodjay’s have good things to say about US Airways, they are less pleased about the policies of their original carrier. When they tried to cancel the return tickets on Spirit they could not use because they never made it to Myrtle Beach, the company representative insisted on charging them a cancellation fee.

Rob Kolodjay said his conversation was blunt, “We survived this air crash and I need your credit card number, he said 'and our policy is we're going to charge you $90."”

It's unclear if Spirit plans to try to collect the fee, however, the credit card the group was booked with is still on the plane, which is sitting on a barge in the Hudson River. US Airways has been more accommodating according the Kolodjays. They claim their luggage might be returned to them soon, including Jeff’s now lucky set of golf clubs.

Looking Bad in the Public Eye

It doesn’t really matter if Spirit decides to forego the $90 cancellation fee, the fact that they are even discussing it portrays the company in a very bad light indeed. While it may be legitimate from a business point of view, the very idea that they are trying to nickel and dime the survivors of an incident grave enough to have an aftermath is ridiculous in the eyes of the public. The public relations damage is done.

Good public relations is essential for any company. It differs from advertising in that the company is not directly paying for the coverage. Instead, the coverage of the company comes through news stories. This has certain advantages since people tend to dismiss advertising far more easily than they do a real news article. Moreover, it can present your company to the community as a good neighbor, a place you want to do business.

Good neighbors is more than a sentiment from an insurance ad. Your relationship with your public—your customers and community—is crucial and maintaining that is another important aspect of your public relations.

Now, with that in mind, how has Spirit done?

It has sent the message that they care more about their fees than anything else. They don’t care about the customers, certainly, and they don’t care about the ordeal they went through. Now, would you like to fly with a company that holds such a mindset? I doubt it. I certainly would not. Whether true or not, the message of arrogant disregard for these people is the one they sent out and since perception is reality for many, that is the issue that Spirit has to address. It won’t help to explain themselves, they have to right the perceived wrong.

Good Customer Service = Good PR

How is US Airways handling the situation? After all, it was their plane that went down, their customers who were at risk. They are doing everything they can to help, working to get at least the carry-on luggage to the passengers, giving credit to that great pilot and his crew—doing what it takes within the limits of the law and the NTSB investigation to make US Airways look good to the public.

That is a far cry from Spirit and its fees.

Ask yourself, if one of your customers suffered a catastrophe—a house fire, perhaps, or a bad auto accident—and called to try and make a payment arrangement. Would you try to stick it to them? Probably not. More than likely, you would work with them to reach a mutually beneficial solution. You would do it because it would be the right thing to do, but more than that, it would be good for you and your business in the long run.

The Bottom Line

It follows, then, that during normal times, it is important to be good to your customers as well. Being good to your customers translates into a good reputation and that leads to good word of mouth, which brings people through the door and increases your customer base. Consider how much more powerful that would be during times of crisis. Happy customers that you take the time to work with, that you develop relationships with are walking PR, they are your best advertising.

All this, of course, is easier to handle right from the start, rather than having to fix things later--a lesson that Spirit Airlines is about to learn.