Caroline Hurry

The customer care at Ethiopian Airlines seems to be crashing. Caroline Hurry talks to media consultant  Janine Lazarus about how the airline might want to go about salvaging a really bad reputation

Peter Berg-Munch had a business class ticket from Addis to Joburg, but on arrival at the airport transfer desk discovered this did not guarantee him a seat.  ‘The ghastliness of Addis Ababa Bole International Airport cannot be over emphasized. Long queues snaked in every direction with no sign of order,’ he said. ‘When I finally got to the front of a queue I was told two flights had been overbooked and no more Business Class seats were left. I was shoehorned into an economy seat on a different flight.’

Plumber’s crack? No, it’s the polony snack!

Compensation offered? Um, nothing. Unless you count the cheap polony on a stale bun.

Nearly two weeks of trying to get through to Ethiopian Airlines offices proved hopeless. Nobody answered the phone. Otherwise it stayed engaged. Peter’s emails to the airline requesting a tax invoice for the Business Class ticket he’d bought, went unanswered.  My own detailed email to their PR in Addis was ignored.

Sadly, this appears to be the norm for Ethiopian Airlines judging by a cursory glance at all the social media complaints.

Owner of City Flights Garth James said he won’t work with Ethiopian Airlines because of the way they treat customers.  ‘The damage is done, customers are lost and all the time and effort into marketing this Star Alliance airline is wasted. They don’t care …’

Agrees newspaper editor Kashiefa Ajam: ‘They suck.  Truly. Our reporter, Sameer, had the same experience with them a few weeks ago.’

Tiffany Turkington, a director of Flow Communications describes her Ethiopian Airlines ordeal as the worst ever after the airline dumped them in Addis for two days, with nary a word of an apology.

‘A group of us had a terrible time flying Ethiopian Airlines to Addis and then on to Italy. The flight left hours late with no explanation and arrived at an unscheduled stop in Gaborone where we waited hours on the tarmac without explanation.

Flyer Beware on Cape Talk

‘By the time we arrived in Addis every connecting flight had left. The airline staff grabbed their bags and went home; leaving a plane load of passengers alone in Addis at 2 am. Staff were non-existent, let alone unhelpful. Not once after being dumped in Addis did the Airline communicate with us, despite our desperate attempts to speak to them.

‘If you don’t want to be dumped in Addis for days, I strongly advise choosing a more reliable airline with the ability to communicate,’ she says

Travel blogger Shelby Anderson was so traumatised and sickened by the ‘shocking and disgusting’ treatment she received at the hands of Ethiopian Airlines involving a fist fight in the haphazard queue between passengers and airport ground staff at Addis, she cut her trip to India by four days and paid another R35000 to get a flight back on Etihad Airways. Read more about her horror experience here.

Frequent traveller Diane Cowan describes her Ethiopian Airlines flight to Thailand as her ‘ worst experience ever’.

‘Food trays lay all over the floor on our flight because attendants were awol … the  business class had footrests hanging on by a thread if they weren’t broken. The Airport layover was as bad with dirty facilities and nothing to do. The Dreamliner on our return flight was overbooked and our teenage children had to take a Kenyan flight with a stop in Nairobi and Windhoek. They made it back home eight hours after we did. Never again!’

After receiving no joy from my own emails to Ethiopian Airlines I took to social media on twitter and facebook, where fellow journalists, bloggers,  and communication specialists were gobsmacked at the continued lack of response from  Ethiopian Airlines.

Owner of MCC Consulting, Daniel Munslow, expressed his surprise on Facebook that the airline didn’t ‘jump in to this conversation’ and manage their #reputation on #socialmedia! Maybe apologise and make a few friends for the future. Arrogance? Indifference?’

Arrogance, reckons travel writer, broadcaster and editor Angus Begg of African StoryBook. ‘There was a thick chunk of arrogance in my Ethiopian Airlines bun, topped with a dollop of  f…off. And my sunglasses were nicked on the plane.’

Veteran journalist and marketing analyst Chris Moerdyk said he found it difficult to understand ‘how an airline can even think of bumping a business class passenger. It’s is one of the great unsolved mysteries of life. They have absolutely no idea of how this harms their brand.’

Janine Lazarus

Agrees media specialist Janine Lazarus of Janine Media who runs training programmes to assist organisations to navigate the choppy waters of negative media coverage: “It would have helped if Ethiopian Airlines had simply followed the three-step rule: Connect with the issue, throwback to a positive track record, then provide detail about action going forward.

“If Ethiopian Airlines don’t even acknowledge this poor excuse for customer service, there is no way forward. Not responding is exactly what NOT to do. Things can only go downhill from here.”

Lazarus says that ducking and diving – being evasive and uncontactable – makes its own kind of deafening comment. “Unfortunately for Ethiopian Airlines, this isn’t going to go away.”

Janine’s Social Media Tips for the airline

  • Speed counts: On social media, rapid replies are expected. A slow response stokes the flames of further discontent. Negative sentiment can soar, and multiply on social media when a brand’s response is seen as too slow
  • Respond publicly: On social media always reply publicly to a complaint before moving the conversation into a private message. This will showcase your brand as transparent, and helpful. Only then should you communicate privately with the complainant to identify details and provide solutions.
  • Lose the excuses: Fabricating excuses to cover mistakes will only destroy your credibility. It’s better to admit your mistake in public and and explain what you’re doing to avoid similar mistakes in future.
  • Address issues :  Waiting for negative coverage to subside without doing anything only allows your competitors to benefit from your silence. Address problems with an honest press statement and explain things clearly

After two weeks of repeatedly telling the airline on social media and private emails that I would write about their poor customer service,  three minutes before the final deadline that I gave the airline to respond, I received an email from an Air Ethiopian employee offering Peter two vouchers for $150 and $200 off future flights with Ethiopian Airways taken within a year.

Complaints keep pouring in

However, Peter who is STILL waiting for the tax invoice he asked for, has no reason to trust the airline’s ability to respond to emails. He says: ‘I’d think twice before using Ethiopian Airlines again.  I enjoyed their Business Class offering to Copenhagen. The seat was comfy and the food was good, but who wants to risk being bumped off and downgraded with no follow through. I will ask them to reimburse my bank account.’

  • In August, thanks to the intervention of SA consumer journalist Wendy Knowler, Peter was refunded R4630.
  • Listen to Wendy Knowler and Pippa Hudson of Cape Talk Radio take the airline to task here.