Any crisis is a time of unprecedented challenges and difficult decision making. However, it is not the first rodeo for our industry. According to the UK Civil Aviation Authority (UK CAA) communications director Richard Stephenson, other crises previously faced and averted have much to teach us about communicating with consumers.

“During the crises, we had three simple messages for consumers,” Stephenson said. “We needed to keep it simple, we needed to keep it clear, we needed to keep it understood.”

On September 14, 2020, during Air Convention Digital Week, Richard drew an interesting parallel between the COVID-19 and Thomas Cook and Monarch Airlines’ bankruptcies that the UK CAA had to navigate in the past three years. 

When the travel agency company Thomas Cook collapsed on September 23, 2019, 146,000 UK nationals found themselves stranded abroad. The UK CAA planned repatriation of its citizens involving 18 different countries and 52 airports. On top of that, it all had to be done in complete secrecy. According to Stephenson, it was partly made possible due to the clarity of communication.

“Consumers understood from day one that we had a plan. It was clearly articulated. We controlled the story, the media amplified our message. Social media was key. We responded to all our twitter messages within one hour. We dealt with 20,000 messages within the first few days,” he said.

A similar event occurred on October 2, 2017, when the UK based carrier Monarch Airlines underwent bankruptcy, and the UK CAA had to repatriate 120,000 people. The operation was successfully carried out in two weeks and 94% of passengers were back home on their due dates.

“And how do you prepare for such a crisis? One thing is for sure is that hope is not a strategy,” Stephenson said, adding: “You need to do your contingency planning, you need to run those live operational simulations, you need to have the resources, you need to invest in capacity and clarity. Communications and operations have to work seamlessly together.”