How Schiphol Airport is Delivering on Brand eXternalities in the Age of Sustainability
A much-overlooked fact is that brand eXternalities are hidden opportunities to impress the customer beyond expectations, often by showing the human side of the company.
Airlines have to deal with many issues beyond their control, much more than companies in other industries – from pilot unions and government regulations to events like 9/11. Even the sudden appearance of new competition on a premium route, or a competitor going bust can often affect the airline’s performance. Something as mundane as flight delays due to weather is beyond the airlines’ control as well. The fact is that every airline faces the same hurdles; it’s how each one reacts that sets it apart from the competition.
Knee-jerk reactions are all too common in the airline industry. When the oil prices hit $140 per gallon in mid-2008, most U.S.-based airlines started charging for checked bags to drive ancillary revenues. They kept these charges for the long term due to the additional revenue brought in, despite oil prices hitting record lows recently.
Interestingly, there was hardly a flutter from Southwest. The original low-cost carrier in the United States ironically is the only one not charging a checked-bag fee today. This is because dealing well with uncertainty requires a clear vision of what the brand stands for and what the airline can and cannot do. The airline calls this “Bags fly free” and often runs brand campaigns around their policies.
When an AirAsia plane crashed in December 2014, Tony Fernandes led from the front, interacting and engaging with the public, media, and employees in a very personal manner. Resilience and flexibility are the keys to surviving industry-wide shocks, and the better airlines are prepared to leverage on these to build their brand further.
By avoiding knee-jerk reactions to eXternalities, airlines also project trustworthiness. Reaction to sudden appearance of new competition or rises in fuel prices shouldn’t change the customer experience drastically. Brand trust takes a long time to build and should not be breached overnight.
Case Study – Schiphol CEO’s response to Greenpeace
Hundreds of environmental activists wearing white overalls stormed an area holding private jets at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport in November 2022 and stopped aircraft from leaving for hours by sitting in front of their wheels.
“We want fewer flights, more trains and a ban on unnecessary short-haul flights and private jets,” Greenpeace Netherlands campaign leader Dewi Zloch said. The environmental group says Schiphol is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the Netherlands, emitting 12 billion kilograms annually.
While protests like these are common in different parts of Europe, few aviation CEOs address the protestors directly. That’s where Schiphol CEO Ruud Sondag’s response to Greenpeace offers a masterclass in dealing with brand eXternalities.
“I’ve been committed to a sustainable Netherlands for more than 25 years, and that won’t change, of course,” he started, sharing his own personal commitment to a greener future.
He then continued by stating the airport’s mission before acknowledging the protestors’ demands, rather than dismissing them. “Schiphol directly links the Netherlands to almost 300 destinations across the globe. That’s wonderful, but this has to be done differently. In a way that’s better for our employees and the environment, with fewer emissions and pollution. We want emissions-free airports by 2030 and net climate-neutral aviation by 2050.”
Finally, he asked the protestors to respect the airport’s employees: “Sustainability is also about treating employees sustainably. That’s also part of my agenda. I stand up for them as well. Demonstrating is a great good. With respect to our employees — who work hard day in and day out for the passengers at Schiphol.”
Sondag’s response shared his personal commitment to sustainability, stated the airport’s mission and embraced the protestors as a force for change, rather than ignoring them.
Climate activism against airlines and airports is only set to increase after the sharp rise in travel post-pandemic. When things outside an airline or airport’s control go out of hand, we can all learn from the Schiphol CEO’s response to Greenpeace.
This is an extract from our “6X+S Airline Brand Model” whitepaper which presents a new framework for airlines to build lasting brands in the age of sustainability. Download the full report here.