While it was Alan Joyce, CEO of Qantas who suffered the ignominy of pie in his face, despite the Qantas’ otherwise stellar reputation. He is perhaps an unfair emblem of an industry in the crosshairs of many compounding challenges. Some of these challenges, such as British Airways’ global system shutdown, which is eerily reminiscent of Delta’s ground halt of 2016, speak to the general state of vulnerability to cyber events – whether due to external threats or corner cutting in critical infrastructure. Other challenges, like the volley of reputational setbacks and public relations scandals, speak to a tone deafness from some senior industry leaders in the face of empowered smart phone wielding passengers who are ready to catch every airline transgression (and aggression) for the entire world to see. Despite these persistent challenges, set against a backdrop of ongoing security threats and government mandates – such as the likely universal laptop ban from U.S. authorities – the airline industry is not only too big to fail, it is too big to avoid in a globally connected economy. Internalizing lessons from the recent spate of unwelcome news will be key in regaining goodwill and improving organizational resilience.
In 2016, the major airlines safely transported more than 3.6 billion passengers to points and places all over the world. Safety, while paramount in the industry, does not necessarily mean that passengers are ferried around the world peaceably. United, British Airways and Delta, to name three major airlines that have recently attracted negative attention shuttled more than 327 million passengers in 2016 for business and leisure travel – about 9% of the global total. And yet ghastly scenes of violence, like the sad Dr. Dao debacle, when a man was brutally deplaned from a now infamous United flight in Chicago, to the apocalyptic travails of thousands of stranded British Airways passengers stuck in London’s major airports, now seem commonplace. The specter of a major electronics ban on all flights entering the U.S. may very well be an albatross around an already struggling industry’s neck. Given the persistent travel ban attempts from the White House to bar passengers from certain predominantly Muslim countries, transatlantic travel has already started to decline, although this dip may be due in part to fleet right sizing. Indeed, travel to the U.S. is imperiled, including from allies such as Canada, with one school district banning field trips to the U.S.