The airline industry – which is deep in a reputational cesspool – is normally the victim of its own incompetence.
Now, it is also being punished by the incompetence of Homeland Security.
The too-little-too-late security measures being rushed into practice as a result of the failed attempt to bring down Flight 253 are resulting in long lines, angry passengers – and very likely – less travel.
But the airlines don’t have to take this sitting down and buckled in. This is a unique branding opportunity for a much-despised industry, an unexpected but nonetheless real chance to begin the rebuilding of a meaningful consumer connection.
Here are three things that a brand-aware airline could do, right now, to emerge as a reputational hero:
1. Become the flyer’s advocate.
Step up and say that Homeland Security is a mess, that the screening process is cumbersome and inefficient, and that new rules about blankets and pillows are public relations propaganda and nothing more.
Be strong and public about it. It would make news and change the dialogue. The first airline to have the courage to take this stand will win a special place in the hearts and minds of all those who endure the indignity of the current experience.
Flyers know that the airlines have no direct control about what happens at security; they just want to know that the people running the airline recognize the problem and share their pain.
I fly a lot, and I can’t think of a single time when an airline expressed any sympathy for what their customers have to go through in the hands of the TSA. That’s a stunning failure.
Yes, I know that the industry has always been loathe to go public about the inanities of Homeland Security policies. They recognize that flying has been made toxic by the security apparatus – and they often take the heat for the inconvenience and time, as the TSA dumps angry passengers in their laps.
But the industry has preferred to lobby quietly for changes in the protocols. That hasn’t worked; flyers hate the airlines, and the screening process is as passenger-unfriendly as ever, if not worse.
2. Bring entertainment to the lines
Every frustrated flyer waiting on an interminable line is a consumer waiting to be won over.
Imagine the brand value that an airline would gain if it set up some flat screen TVs so that line-crawlers could watch clips of the Daily Show, or some other video bytes that would make the time fly before the plane does.
Or how about if an airline handed out coffee, or sent a magician to occupy bored kids (and adults, for that matter)?
Bring in some smart people from Disney and tell them that their mission is to make people happier at the end of the line, than the beginning. I’m sure it can be done.
3. Crowd-source new security approaches
Just about every flyer, when confronting the clumsy and chaotic situation at security, has come up with better solutions. I know I have.
And I am sure there are entrepreneurs and inventors out there who have come up with some significant security innovations that they haven’t been able to put in front of the right people in the government.
A smart airline would put out a call for new ideas on their website, and invite the DHS to come on over and check out the ingenuity of Americans. What a bold move. Rather than passively accepting the status quo, whomever did this would emerge as a brand hero in the eyes of their most important customers.
It was just a couple of weeks ago when the Secretary of Transportation announced that airlines would be fined $27,500  for each passenger they keep trapped on the tarmac after three hours.
This regulation is a result of the withering media coverage of flyers stranded without food or water for as long as eight hours or more. And it’s part of a relentless drumbeat of bad press that includes chronic delays, vanishing amenities, and nickel-and-dime charges for extra legroom and checked baggage.
The airline industry has become a punch-line. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has created a window for a quick-thinking, consumer-driven airline to seize the dialogue and say what every flyer is thinking. That’s how brands are built, reputations restored, and – not inconsequentially – change happens.