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Why AirAsia's paraplegic passenger incident highlights the need for frontline staff empowerment

Why AirAsia's paraplegic passenger incident highlights the need for frontline staff empowerment

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Frontline staff are a crucial aspect of the customer's experience when it comes to the service industry. With travel picking up, airlines are among the companies that need to once again win the hearts of consumers with their hospitality and service. However, AirAsia recently stirred up chatter on social media and apologised for making a paraplegic passenger crawl across the cabin floor. The passenger reportedly had to pay SG$40 for a wheelchair even though the exit was three metres away, but it isn't clear if he made the booking or not. The flight was from Jakarta to Singapore. Meanwhile, media reports said that AirAsia's cabin crew had attempted to help the man by holding his hand.

Kesavan Sivanandam, AirAsia's chief airport and customer experience officer, told A+M  yesterday that it has procedures in place for the carriage of disabled or mobility impaired guests including the provision of an aisle wheelchair. This is highlighted during the booking process and can be booked in advance, at the time of booking to ensure a smooth experience, he added.

While it is a norm for airline employees to adhere to strict protocol, it is safe to say that certain incidents can be better resolved if employees had autonomy to make a decisions based on situations in real time.

A 2020 study by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services sponsored by ThoughtSpot titled "The New Decision Makers: Equipping Frontline Workers For Success" found organisations will be more successful when frontline workers are empowered to make important decisions in that moment. This was a survey of 464 business executives from 16 industry sectors in Asia Pacific, North America and Europe.

In reality, however, few are equipping their workers with the resources to do so. Only one-fifth of organisations say they currently have a truly empowered and digitally equipped workforce while 86% agree their frontline workers need better technology and more insight to be able to make good decisions at the moment. According to the study, organisations are unable to realise the benefits of a fully empowered workforce without overcoming the barriers influencing the decision-making process. 

Ethos defines a company's standard operating procedure (SOP), Vijayaratnam Tharumartnam, head, group communications at QSR Brands Holdings, said. When a company is clear about how and why it does business, then its employees will know how to act accordingly - even when it goes against SOPs - without fear of recrimination, he said. According to him, this empowerment is a learned behaviour and clearly needs to be part of a company's culture.

Employees act based on what they have seen. A company that puts customers over profit is less likely to frown on an employee who bites the bullet.

On the other hand, if employee feel that their actions will cause reprimand, they are hardly going to stick their necks out. "I think most people know intrinsically, how to do the right thing. So ultimately, the organisation needs to decide and make clear what it stands for because this in turn signals to employees what is acceptable and what is not," Tharumartnam explained.

Employees are often seen as brand ambassadors and this is even more of a case for frontline staff since they also have the influence of positively affecting customer experience. Agreeing with Tharumartnam was Syed Mohammed Idid, PLUS Malaysia's head of corporate communications, who said how frontline staff act or react is predominantly influenced by the empowerment culture of that organisation.

One of the six corporate values at PLUS is transparency and open communication, which Syed said enables its highway patrol units to make decisions emphatically and rationally for the safety and comfort of its highway customers. The frontline staff have delivered babies and assisted a customer in reaching her flight on time after her vehicle broke down on the way to the airport. According to Syed, these acts of kindness and humanity are not in the rulebook but PLUS encourages its staff to be able to decide to do the right thing within acceptable parameters. He added:

In a nutshell, it's the culture and driving customer centricity is an effort not just by the leaders but by every single individual who believes in the purpose in taking good care of customers.

A former marketer from the aviation industry who chose to remain anonymous said that there is always a thin line between empathy and cost of great customer experience and this differentiation is not easy to identify.

“On one hand, AirAsia as a company needs to ensure there is a fair treatment across the board for all customers and thus, stating the requirements and charges on their website is clearly professional. While on the other, empowerment should also be a culture built from the top to enable employees are given a certain amount of lee-way based on the situation on the ground,” he added.

Having said that, it should also be noted that in the aviation industry, safety and regulations are globally governed for specific reasons. Therefore, lee-way can be a dangerous alley to walk down where the argument can be around how much lee-way and empathy can be offered before the line of safety is crossed?

Meet Asia’s top PR and communication leaders in-person. PR Asia sets the stage for the future of purpose-driven contemporary PR. Join us on 9 November as we gather Asia’s top PR and communication practitioners in-person in Malaysia. Deep dive into the next necessary steps for PR as we head towards 2023. Only at #PRAsia.

How can AirAsia tackle social media chatter?

Keywords surrounding the TikTok video included "video of paraplegic", "down aisle", "passenger, "aisle wheelchair", and "disabled man aisle", according to Meltwater's findings from 30 September to 3 October. Most of the chatter was negative (50.5%) while only 3.8% were positive.

airasia paraplegic meltwater


Without a doubt, doing damage control might be an uphill task for companies. However, if the intention to rectify and make good one's brand promise in a sincere and authentic manner will regain consumers' trust and brand love in the long run, PLUS's Syed said the key is to consistently and continuously seek redemption by doing the right thing for the customer, in a fair and just manner.

At the same time, AirAsia also needs to be clear about where it stands on this matter, QSR's Tharumartnam said the airline's responses thus far have been to "throw the SOP book which is clever in that it is neither accepting blame nor saying it didn't do anything wrong".

"The company has been extremely strategic in selling itself as a "people's airline" and being customer-centric when things get rough. However, AirAsia should also acknowledge that today's consumers can see past the rhetoric," he explained. This is especially so among Gen Z consumers who value authenticity. A survey by DeVries Global done last year found that this group of consumers highly value authenticity and integrity (44%), responsibility (40%), and sustainability (36%).

Perhaps, this would be an opportunity for AirAsia to be honest about the fact that it is about profits and that its cheap fares come at a price, Tharumartnam said, so customers need to accept them for what they are. "I think the modern consumer would much rather authenticity over terminological inexactitude," he added.

Edwin Yeo, GM of SPRG added that as much as there are set guidelines for businesses to operate, and staff are also trained to follow such guidelines, it is important that we don't hold onto such guidelines at the expense of being human.

“Breaking free of their policies for wheelchairs, quite frankly, will not have a large impact on their bottom line. Wheelchairs are not luxuries, and while budget airlines do need to run a tight ship due to low margins, there must be consideration for a passenger's genuine need for help,” he said.

“AirAsia should take the opportunity here to review their policies and staff training, take a more humanistic approach to managing the comfort of passengers who are in genuine need of help”.

Meet Asia’s top PR and communication leaders in-person. PR Asia sets the stage for the future of purpose-driven contemporary PR. Join us on 9 November as we gather Asia’s top PR and communication practitioners in-person in Malaysia. Deep dive into the next necessary steps for PR as we head towards 2023. Only at #PRAsia.

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