SIA ticket price mix-up: A missed opportunity to boost brand, public opinion

SIA ticket price mix-up: A missed opportunity to boost brand, public opinion

For a global airline like Singapore Airlines (SIA), branding and reputation are critical to its success.

That is why it made the right call in honouring the cheap tickets that were sold to consumers because of a computer glitch.

But the question remains: Why did it not just admit its mistake from the very start?

When the news broke that there was a glitch which allowed hundreds of travellers to buy business class tickets at the cost of economy class fares, SIA's first response was defensive.

It blamed a computer error and said consumers were still expected to either top up the difference or get a full refund.

It even pointed to the fine print on the tickets, which showed they were valid only for economy class travel.

SIA did apologise for the inconvenience caused but not for the mistake it made.

Two days later, SIA did an about turn and said that it would honour the tickets instead.

The delay was unfortunate.

It showed that SIA was reluctant to bear the costs of its own mistake and did so only under pressure from the public.

SIA has refused to state how much this fiasco would cost them, but rough back-of-the-envelope calculations would suggest a sum of about $2 million.

This isn't a sum that would break the company, which has $7 billion in cash reserves.

Of course, it did not have to change tack.

It would have been perfectly within SIA's legal rights to demand that these customers give up the tickets, as Singapore Management University Associate Professor Goh Yihan has pointed out in his blog post.

But there is a big difference in what the Singapore national carrier can do and what it should do.

In this age of social media, big firms have to tread carefully about the way they treat complaints because a wrong move could seriously damage a company's reputation.

Netizens love to take down big firms, expose them and shame them for how they treat individuals.

Take SIA's rival British Airlines as an example.

Last year, one of its customers was unhappy with the airline for losing his father's luggage.

To exact revenge, the customer paid US$1,000 (S$1,300) to promote his unhappy tweets and generated a wave of negative publicity against the company.

BA eventually apologised publicly.

SIA faced a similar situation, except that it was dealing with not one but 400 potentially very unhappy customers.

The about-face helped prevent such a blow-up.

But SIA had missed a great opportunity to not just set things right but also turn the negative incident into a positive one, said Mr Tarun Deo, managing director of public relations agency Golin.

The airline could have turned this mistake into a marketing opportunity by giving these customers the royal treatment.

"There would have been 400 word-of-mouth ambassadors who talked positively about Singapore Airlines," he said.

The simple reality is that big companies like SIA are not simply judged by the quality of the service they deliver but also by public opinion.

In this case, it was a missed opportunity to tell the world why SIA is still a great way to fly.

This article was first published on December 11, 2014.
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