ATW Editor's Blog

Media reaction to ‘safest year’ for airlines is telling

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Two reports issued at the start of the year hail good news for the air traveling public: 2017 was the safest year in history with no fatalities occurring on large commercial jets.

Airlines, however, should note the general media reaction to this historic moment. The story (based on separate reports from two Netherlands-based companies) was mostly ignored, or covered mockingly because US President Donald Trump appeared in a Tweet to claim the safety record was his achievement. Most telling of all, it generated headlines such as these:

“Air travel was miserable in 2017, but at least nobody died in a commercial jet crash” (Washington Post)

“While 2017 was safe for flying, it wasn’t exactly fun” (Vox)

If the best that can be said about a service industry, even in its safest year, is that it is a miserable experience but nobody died, then there’s a serious disconnect between what airlines think they provide and what their customers expect.

The good news is that the facts underlying the reports result from an industry-wide ethos that does indeed put safety first, first and first. The people at airlines, manufacturers, regulatory and security organizations have worked ceaselessly over decades to improve commercial air transport safety and to learn from every single accident. The result is an industry that has achieved an astonishing global safety standard that in 2017 recorded just 1.2 incidents per million flight sectors, according to IATA statistics.

But what the general media reaction demonstrates is that safety is a given—an expectation—and airlines can’t sell it. The record is excellent across most regions and across different airline types, full service or low cost. It’s not a differentiator.

Yet, in some ways, airlines do continue to “sell” safety, or at least to hide behind it when things go wrong. When there’s a delay or a cancellation, airlines are often quick to remind passengers that the inconvenience caused is necessary “because safety is our top priority”. Many airlines still emphasize in their welcome aboard messages that the flight crews are there “primarily for your safety”. What they should be doing is preparing for disruption and working to minimize the inconvenience.

Safety videos and compliance with safety instructions are important.  But if all airlines have accomplished in 100 years of commercial flying is that their customers say, “yeah, it won’t kill me, but it’s still awful”, then this is a good year for airlines to work on customer service individually, and for the industry as a whole to work on its image. Let 2018 be the year of continued airline safety excellence and outstanding customer service.

Karen Walker karen.walker@informa.com

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