Qantas has publicly admitted that it did not use Twitter or Facebook effectively to communicate to passengers and Singaporean residents affected by the QF32 flight incident last year, when an Airbus A380 was forced to make an emergency landing in Singapore after an engine exploded in mid-air.
Qantas business resilience manager, Mark Scalan, told the audience at Security 2011 in Sydney that it got "fairly well hammered" by social media because the company was caught unawares by the incident and could not respond effectively to inquiries about the safety of passengers.
Photos showing parts of the plane landing in a park in Singapore were posted on Facebook by residents.
“Communication is a two-way street because we can push out all the media releases we like but we aren’t necessarily answering anyone’s questions," Scalan said.
The lessons the airline learnt from the experience, such as responding quickly and honestly to customer enquiries on Twitter, were applied when dealing with the Chilean volcanic eruptions during June and July that led to the cancellation of international and domestic flights.
"All the ash was deemed to be unsafe so this led to 500 flights being cancelled with 200,000 customers impacted," he said.
"We had learnt from the Airbus A380 incident and made sure we had the capability online to do that," Scalan said.
However, Qantas soon discovered it was sending out so many Twitter messages out to customers that its account became overloaded.
"Ultimately the social media proved to be fantastic because in answering one person’s question, we answered multiple queries at the same time." One of the key findings was that if customers were on their way to the airport and could get a Twitter message on their phone, they could find out the flight had been cancelled or reinstated.
"We can get that information out far quicker on Twitter than we can get it to the customer service agent," he said.
Since the Airbus A380 and Chilean volcanic ash incident, the company has a new response framework that is designed to be flexible and agile.
"My final message is that you should never believe that you have done enough because each time we had an event we thought we had learnt enough to carry on but there has been another event which has shown us something new,” Scalan said.
When asked about the current Qantas industrial action where pilots are protesting over plans by the airline to retrench 1000 airline staff and set up a low-cost carrier in Japan, along with a possible premium Asian service, Scalan said the pilots were doing what were entitled to do as part of industrial action.
"The company is committed to finding a solution and while there has been a mixed response on social media, I think it’s up to every individual who flies Qantas to make up their own mind how they feel about the [Qantas] pilots taking action.," he said.
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