On November 8, India’s biggest low-cost airline IndiGo found itself in the middle of a PR disaster. A video doing the rounds in social media showed the airline’s staff allegedly manhandling a flier after a Chennai-Delhi flight. What followed were jokes, memes and calls for boycott, all of which a public apology from the airline’s CEO didn’t appear to stem.
But now, more than 10 days later, IndiGo doesn’t appear to have suffered commercially from social media anger. The online travel agents that BusinessLine spoke to said that in the days since the video became public, bookings on the airline — which enjoys close to 40 per cent market share in the domestic circuit — remained as strong as ever. Agents say there have been no requests by passengers to cancel their IndiGo flights or reschedule to another airline; neither has the airline had to drop fares to retain passengers.
So was #saynotoindigo nothing more than an empty threat? How much does negative PR affect the commercial aspect of a business? “Almost never in the short run,” said Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, BrandComm. “The brand might take a beating for a while, but it’s still a good airline. Our sentiment for how we see the airline as treating its passengers is separate from the airline’s performance in getting you efficiently from one point to another. For a business to lose customers, there needs to be repeated negative experiences. Right now, I think most fliers see this incident as a one-off for IndiGo.”
IndiGo did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s even tougher for customers to express their unhappiness with a business in an oligopolistic industry like aviation, according to Paresh Vaish, Partner, EY. “IndiGo has among the most comprehensive coverage for domestic routes; so for a lot of fliers, the airline is sometimes the only option. Also, customers tend to separate the individual’s experience from the brand itself. So while Rajiv Katiyal (the passenger in the video) might choose to never fly IndiGo again, the chances of everybody else following the same way are slim.”
The only exception, Vaish added, is when passengers are concerned about safety. “Take Malaysia Airlines for example. After the MH370 disappearance, there was a significant drop in bookings which brought the carrier close to bankruptcy.” Brand guru Harish Bijoor concurred. “Sometimes, we may not like the brand but still use the product because there aren’t any other options available.”
Mahesh Reddy, Secretary General, Air Passengers Association of India, believes while the immediate commercial fallout of such incidents might be negligible, they don’t bode well either for a brand or the country’s image. “We’re speaking to airlines and asking them to train their apprentices and staff better. We’re also pushing for this with the ministry. Such incidents must not recur.”
“I think a commercial backlash is more likely in mature markets in the West where expectations of customer service are much higher,” Sridhar said. “Indians are slowly getting there. Right now, when we take to social media to complain, we’re just trying to shame the brand into doing better. We want to say that the behaviour is not acceptable; we’re not going to take this lying down.”