21 Nov 2017 21:06 IST

What can IndiGo do to regain customer confidence?

Tell us how the airline can prevent the recent fracas from damaging its image in the long term

On November 7, a video clip was telecast across the national media showing a passenger of private carrier IndiGo Airlines being assaulted and manhandled by the airline’s staff. The video clip set in motion a chain of events, with the Minister of Civil Aviation, Ashok Gajapati Raju, calling upon the Director-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to set up an independent inquiry into the incident.

The President and Wholetime Director of IndiGo, Aditya Ghosh, admitted that the airline was partially at fault and said: “My colleagues should have exercised restraint. Even while the investigation was being conducted, we immediately suspended the employees involved.” Nevertheless, the airline continued to face backlash from customers and the general public who were outraged after watching the video across traditional and social media channels.

IndiGo

IndiGo was launched in 2006 with a single plane as a single-class, low-cost carrier. Its brand new, clean planes, punctuality and quick turnaround times helped the airline differentiate itself. Indigo concentrated on trimming costs at every step. It continued to grow and, by 2012, had become the largest airline in India with a market share of 27 per cent.

By 2015, its market share increased to 36.5 per cent and by early 2017, to 39.8 per cent. Jet Airways was in second position with a 15.5 per cent share. Analysts attribute the success of IndiGo to its customer-centric practices, where employees were encouraged to take ownership of customer issues.

The Incident

The video that surfaced on November 7 showed an incident that occurred on October 15, at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. In the video, a passenger, Rajiv Katyal, is seen being pulled back by the ground staff of IndiGo as he tried to enter one of the coaches of the airline.

Rajiv Katyal said, “I was standing in the shade of the aircraft when a ground staff started shouting at me in a very rude manner. I asked him why they could not arrange a third bus for passengers who were waiting to reach the terminal. Meanwhile, when the bus came, two people said ‘let’s teach him a lesson’ and one of them pulled me out of the bus.” In the altercation that followed, the passenger fell down and was seen being dragged on the tarmac by two employees, who pinned him to the tarmac and continued to assault him.

The video was filmed by one of the staff members, Montu Kalra, who claimed to be a whistle-blower and informed the media that he had been fired from the company for shooting the video and bringing the incident to the airline’s attention.

However, IndiGo claimed that Kalra, who was not seen in the video, could be heard instructing two of his junior colleagues to stop Katyal from boarding the bus. The airline also said that Kalra was a cargo employee and had no work in the passenger area and, if he had chosen to deal with the passenger, he should have helped instead of instigating the other employees and capturing the incident on his mobile phone.

Damage control

In a letter to the Civil Aviation Minister, Ghosh said the incident had been brought to his notice on the day it had occurred, and he had personally called and apologised to the customer the same day. He also said that an inquiry was conducted and Kalra had been sacked. Two more employees had been given warning letters.

Ghosh added that, contrary to Kalra’s claims, the incident had not been reported by him. He admitted that the behaviour of his staff had been against the culture of the company, and claimed that proper action had been taken. In a letter that IndiGo submitted to the Ministry, it said that the passenger, Katyal, had been moving towards a catering high-lift, too close to the aircraft, which could have resulted in an accident and that one of the staff members had been trying to ensure his safety. IndiGo also said that the passenger had been “irritated and irate” and had used abusive language.

The Aftermath

But the letter from Ghosh failed to pacify the other passengers and the general public, who were outraged by the incident and compared it to the one involving United Airlines in the US, where a passenger was forcibly deplaned.

In the last few years, airlines in India have been witnessing unruly behaviour by passengers, especially celebrities and politicians, with some of them threatening airline staff and even vandalising airline property. In addition to being a potential security threat, such behaviour also had an adverse impact on the morale of the airline staff.

With such incidents increasing, the DGCA had come up with a no-fly list for unruly passengers in September 2017. As per this, a passenger could be banned from three months to several years for misbehaving with airline staff. Some observers commented that, after this rule came into force, the behaviour of airline staff has undergone a change, and several incidents of employees behaving harshly toward passengers were reported.

After the video surfaced, the hashtag #boycottIndiGo was seen trending, with millions of social media users condemning the incident. They pointed out that the airline had tendered a public apology only after the incident had been shown on TV channels, and not of its own accord. Many users demanded a boycott of IndiGo. A former Chairman of Air India said that the airline was operating with a false sense of pride after its success, and was ill-treating those very passengers who were responsible for making it the country’s most successful airline.

Competitors were quick to take jibes at IndiGo. Air India, in tweets which were later deleted, posted ‘Unbeatable Service’ highlighting the word ‘Beat’ in blue; another tweet showed Air India’s mascot, the Maharaja, with folded hands and the tag-line: ‘We raise our hands only to say Namaste’.

Another image, purporting to be a Jet Airways ad, was circulating in social media with the tag line ‘We beat our competition, not you’. Jet Airways clarified that it had not commissioned the ad. It turned out that an agency named Mad Over Marketing had developed the creative .

Looking Ahead

The incident had potent ramifications for IndiGo, according to analysts, coming as it did just a couple of days after ace badminton player PV Sindhu claimed that the staff of IndiGo had behaved rudely with her.

In the case involving Sindhu, however, IndiGo had supported the employee about whom Sindhu had complained, claiming that the bag the player had been carrying was too large to be kept in the overhead luggage rack and that she had to be convinced to shift the baggage to the cargo hold. The airline said the staff had only been ensuring the safety of the passengers and operations.

Nevertheless, IndiGo’s customer service ethos came under the scanner after the passenger manhandling incident. Henceforth, even a small lapse on the part of the airline could be blown out of proportion and create a negative perception about the brand.

THE QUESTIONS

If you were a part of the committee set up by IndiGo following the incident, tell us what suggestions would you make on the following issues:

How could the airline have prevented the situation from snowballing into an unpleasant incident, affecting its image?

What more can it do to recover from the crisis?

How can it ensure such a situation does not arise again?

The staff should be trained to manage irate passengers better. How can this be done?

What should the airline do to regain customers’ confidence and rebuild its image as a customer-centric carrier?

(Indu is Coordinator, Case Research Centre City Unit and Debapratim is Associate Dean & Head, Case Research Centre, IBS Hyderabad.)