What Really Matters to an Airline’s Reputation

It seems as if the airlines are in the news every day. With that in mind, we opened up APCO’s vault of reputation research to examine which factors are actually defining and driving perceptions of this sector.

While traditional and social media narratives would have one believe that all that matters to airline reputations are costs and customer service, our research indicates that the industry’s reputation is influenced by a variety of broader factors. Below we have outlined some of the key issues that matter most in the eyes of the sector’s key stakeholders:

  • Don’t skimp on safety: Our data shows that safety is table stakes. While everyone grabs their armrest now and then when turbulence occurs, most people subscribe to the philosophy that flying is safer than driving and don’t give it much thought. APCO’s vault of data indicates that not only is safety core to reputation, but it is a key factor driving customer decisions.
  • Focus on the experience: Our research shows that while affordability is a priority, there are expectations for airlines to return to the glamorous era of flying when it was a special experience – not like riding on mass transit. Airline customers place high importance on a quality experience for the money – not necessarily a “cheap” experience. As many airlines are mirroring the strategies of budget airlines (or becoming budget airlines themselves), an airline can most effectively differentiate itself by communicating to consumers the small ways it is making air travel special again.
  • Reduce the environmental impact of flying: The carbon footprint of flying represents a potential “drag” on the industry’s reputation as APCO sees stakeholders clamoring for airlines to seek more fuel efficient methods. However, the industry and most airlines are already engaged in operational measures to reduce fuel usage – yet our research shows that stakeholders are not hearing the message. To close this gap between what’s being done and what’s being communicated, the industry (and airlines themselves) needs to do a better job of telling their story of fuel efficiency.
  • Build connections to hub cities: As a result of airline consolidation, we’ve also begun to see more airlines dominating their hubs and becoming one of only a few airlines operating flights from their hub’s respective airport. Based upon our research, alongside growth of the airlines’ business presence in these airport hubs, we anticipate growing expectations for the airlines’ increased engagement with the surrounding community. In order to strengthen reputation, airlines should forge stronger connections with hub cities, built through involvement with local community organizations, community sponsorships and employee volunteerism, not just through cash donations.
  • Prioritize workforce investment: Contrary to conventional wisdom, the reputation of the airline industry is not completely defined by employment issues. Not surprisingly, our research confirms that labor relations are an area that pose a challenge to the reputation of the industry, but when placed in comparison with environmental concerns or perceptions of customer experience, it has less impact on reputation. To build up an airline’s reputation as a good employer it is important to showcase a commitment to recognizing and rewarding employees for their performance, as well as to listen and gather input from employees in general.

Building a strong reputation for any company or industry isn’t about winning a beauty contest, but rather is about relying on sound data. The reputation research data APCO has carried out for a variety of industries and companies for over 15 years confirms a direct link between reputation and business performance. Furthermore, strong reputations can help companies weather the storm of controversy. With numerous issues impacting the airline industry’s landscape over the past few years, now is the time for the sector, and the companies within it, to focus on protecting and strengthening their collective and individual reputations.