Don't drink and fly: Can one drunk pilot saga stain SIA's pristine image?

Singapore Airlines (SIA) has recently made headlines for not only being the sponsor for Singapore Grand Prix Formula 1 event, but also for its pilot having failed an alcohol test in Melbourne. The pilot was deemed unfit to fly after authorities found him to have a higher than suitable blood alcohol limit.

Currently airline pilots licensed in Singapore have to undergo an annual medical assessment, which includes an assessment of his or her alcohol consumption habits, in addition to the physical examination and medical investigations that are usually carried out. Nonetheless, since the incident, Alan Foo, director (Airworthiness and Flight Operations), CAAS has also voiced out on the matter saying that it is taking a serious view of the incident and is conducting an investigation into the case. He said:

In the last 10 years, this is the only case that has been reported to CAAS.

"CAAS views substance/alcohol abuse by pilots very seriously [and] it is an offence for any person, including a pilot, when acting as a member of the crew of an aircraft operating out of our airports or for Singapore-registered aircraft, anywhere it is operating, to be under the influence of alcohol,” Foo said. He added that an offender may be subject to a fine of S$100,000 and/or imprisonment not exceeding five years.

“It is the responsibility of each pilot to ensure that he or she does not commit such on offence,” Foo said, adding that Singapore carriers must further ensure that their flight crew abstain from alcoholic drinks for at least 8 hours prior to operating a flight.

How to ensure one incident doesn't make a huge dent

The airline has often been the pride and joy of locals ,and has been known internationally for its top-notch experience and its standard of security. With an incident such as this now on its record, PR players say that the brand needs to get a move on to emphasise direct actions that need to be immediately taken.

Lars Voedisch, managing director of PRecious Communications said that there are four steps to take in a time of crisis, which are "Get it fast, get it right, get it out and get it over".

"The wider public will think that if there is one pilot, there might be more. There's a saying that there's no smoke without fire," he said. As such, the brand cannot stall on an issue for too long.  He added that SIA needs to quickly outline how it is going to fix the two problems on hand - the individual pilot and ensuring this does not happen ever again.

“SIA needs to talk about its cause of action every step of the way and ensure audiences that there was never any possible safety implications. Or if there were, SIA needs to spell out how the organisation would have mitigated the situation. It needs to now be extremely transparent and apologies genuinely,” he said.

"Especially as a premium airline brand, all your bells and whistles of innovation and equipment do not matter anymore if the ultimate hygiene factor of aviation, safety, is compromised," Voedisch said.

Another PR player who spoke under anonymity said that this incident "shook" the brand after its big win with Formula 1. However, the first and most important step to take it to handle the compensations for the affected passengers as they are the "critical audience".

SIA also has to prioritise that its current passengers and potential passengers are willing to continue flying with the airline. As such, the brand has to be open and authentic in ensuring the measures it is taking and also to constantly "reaffirm" the public even if the information is already out.

She added that the key in such a situation is to communicate openly, authentically and proactively. "In terms of the impact on the brand, consumers are willing to forgive brands who come out and apologise genuinely," she said, adding that SIA has already taken most measures that needs to be done. She added:

One incident like this won't affect the impact the brand as it is one of the biggest airline company.

Marc Bakker, marketing director of Right Hook Communications said that in terms of damage control, it's important for SIA to make sure that the affected passengers are well taken care of and compensated for their troubles. He added that the blame for this incident rests on the pilot's shoulders,  and not on SIA for its response to that circumstance.

However, Bakker said that with SIA's long and established track record for safety, its reputation will place them on good stead from this "temporary setback".

It's a good example of how building up a strong brand reputation can protect a company's credibility in the long run.