On Message: Rebuilding the superjumbo dream

On Message: PR Week editor Danny Rogers on marketing and branding

At launch, the public fell in love with the A380. But now Airbus, Qantas and engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce face a major uphill struggle

As an experiment, I typed Airbus 380 into Google yesterday. The first result that came up was: ‘Emergency crews attend to a Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine on a Qantas Airbus A380 after it made an emergency landing in Singapore’.

I did the same thing on Twitter, and got: ‘El accidente de Qantas retrasa los planes de Airbus para el A-380’. This is a sure sign of a global reputation crisis for the ‘superjumbo’ aircraft.

The headlines that the A380 is currently generating are very different from those when the first commercial aircraft was handed over to Singapore airlines, just over three years ago.

At that time the world’s media were awe-struck by the aircraft’s capacity – more than 800 passengers in a single class configuration; its floor space – more than 5,000 sq feet; and its luxury potential – there were breathless reports about passenger suites, luxury showers and an on-board gym.

The A380’s first passenger flight was accompanied by similarly brilliant PR, with the first passengers buying seats in a charity auction, paying between $560 and $100,388 for the privilege.

But, as I write this, Qantas’ six A380s are all grounded. They have been out of action since November 4, the day of the Singapore emergency after one of the Rolls-Royce engines exploded.

And – in a classic example of how quickly a modern media crisis evolves – the reputational damage appears to have been even worse for the engine maker itself.

Rolls-Royce eventually accepted responsibility, and it subsequently emerged that there had been problems reported on similar engines. This led to sharp fall in Rolls-Royce’s share price.

Chief executive Sir John Rose has been forced on to the back foot in recent days, defending the company’s safety record. Some commentators have even started comparing the incident to BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster earlier this year.

This is premature of course. Fortunately, no-one has been injured at the time of writing and a thorough safety review is underway. But it is incredible how quickly the lustre of hitherto shiny brands can be lost.

This is largely the result of 24-hour global media and a multitude of bloggers and Twitter experts, whose combined output increases the size and scope of the crisis. The combined effect of worldwide TV pictures of the shattered engine and semi-informed social media chatter can be devastating.

Rolls-Royce is already costing the crisis in the tens of millions of pounds. The same could easily be true for Qantas, and for Airbus in terms of order delays.

Now all of these travel and transport brands must rebuild their reputations to minimise longer-term costs. Rolls-Royce in particular needs to focus more effort on social media rather than traditional media relations, because it has appeared sluggish and out-of-touch in this case study.

I haven’t yet had the pleasure of flying on an Airbus 380, but I certainly hope to do so soon. And it would be nice to know that it was powered by a beautifully-engineered, British-made, engine.

Simply seeing a massive A380 poised on the runway is an awesome experience in itself. Passengers tell me it is also eerily smooth and quiet on take-off. But at the moment, like many people, I feel a sense of unease towards the whole enterprise.

What all of the brands involved now need is an operational review that leaves no stone unturned. But, crucially, this must be accompanied by an intensive reassurance campaign, comprising detailed and transparent communication across traditional and digital media.

Only then will the A380 regain its rightful role in the future of commercial aviation. Only then will the media – and eventually the travelling public – fall back in love with the ‘superjumbo’ dream.

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