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Christmas crisis

Jonathan Barrett, Managing Director, EMEA at the public information gathering software firm Dataminr, writes of communicating during a Christmas crisis.

For airlines, train and coach companies, the holiday season brings huge commercial opportunity, as well as an increased risk of disruption, anxious travellers and the potential of brand crisis. In fact, an estimated 51 million people traveled by plane during the festive season in 2017, and this year is set to be no different.

As millions of passengers begin to travel around the world to visit loved ones, transport companies must be cautious of their brand and operations to ensure that they mitigate risk quickly should the unexpected happen. With travel disruption throughout the festive period so common, it has never been more vital that businesses have the tools in place to identify and respond to issues, alleviate customer fears and minimise negative outcomes.

To do this effectively, airlines need real-time information so that they can identify and respond to issues with the right information at the right time and protect the customers and brand as a whole.

The Christmas period requires airline security teams to be on especially high alert for threats. For example, airports have experienced attacks on premises, as events in Paris, Belgium and Fort Lauderdale have demonstrated. When an attack occurs, corporate security teams need to know instantly and be able to reach out quickly to communicate with customers and employees alike. Publicly available sources — social media, blogs and the dark web, for instance – can surface indications long before traditional information streams do. During the Brussels Airport attack in 2016, public data sets contained information about the bombing 10 minutes before the first news reports were published.

These new data sets can also aid in preventing incidents because they can help corporate security teams identify threats posted online. This happened in August when, amid a diplomatic disagreement between Saudi Arabia and Canada, a pro-government Saudi Twitter handle posted an image of a plane flying towards the Toronto skyline. The image not only caused global outrage, as it recalled the 9/11 attacks on the United States, but also heightened security concerns for airlines operating in Toronto. Thanks to faster insights, airlines were able to initiate crisis prevention plans and communicate effectively with customers before any crisis amounted.

Beyond identifying threats and attacks, publicly available information can help corporate security teams gain visibility into real-time incidents happening on their planes. For example, last year, a woman travelling for the Christmas period was sexually harassed by a male passenger. She notified airline personnel, and when they landed, the man was arrested. However, in a series of Tweets, the woman detailed what crew members could do in the future to prevent this sort of incident. Corporate security teams with access to this first-person account in real time could have acted on this event with greater insight and improve passenger safety.

Passengers at Gatwick airport suffered a major transport failure earlier this year when a damaged fibre optic cable triggered an IT outage, causing every departure board to black out for over 12 hours. As a result, passengers turned to social media to vent their frustrations. Despite the airport using whiteboards to display flight information, chaos ensued with customers unable to view departure gates and, in some cases, missing flights. In such high-pressure situations, brands are faced with a near impossible task of communicating with their customers about scenarios that are often outside of their control. While social media and alternative data sets can seem like an adversary for corporate comms teams, Gatwick airport and businesses within the terminal could have used social channels to better communicate with its customers. In doing so, they would have been able alleviate concerns and provide the right information to the right people.

In contrast to this, proactive communication can preempt customer dissatisfaction, as was the case this past November at San Francisco International Airport. With catastrophic wildfires raging over 200 miles away, the air quality and lack of visibility led to flights being delayed or cancelled in San Francisco. Pre-empting this crisis, the airport sent out a tweet to warn passengers of the disruption. Informing passengers earlier mitigated some of the inevitable complaints and travel chaos. Travellers may not intuitively think that a raging fire far from the airport would have an impact on their plans, which is why proactive communication was able to reduce potential passenger grievances and maintain the relationship and a necessary level of trust between the airport and their customers.


To pre-empt, plan and prevent a christmas travel crisis, the common lesson that airlines must be aware of in all of these examples is information sharing. When customers are kept in the loop, they are more likely to react positively. The same is true for the airports and airlines themselves. Given access to real-time information, they too are kept in the loop and can respond to threats, reduce safety concerns and keep their customers apprised of any incidents that may affect their itineraries. Alerts from publicly available data help the airline industry stay informed in real time and make sharper decisions for customers and businesses. By utilising these tools, airlines and businesses can ensure that they reduce and minimise travel chaos, maintain their relationships with their customers and support brand reputation – all leading to a happier festive period.


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