John Strickland asks if media coverage of recent airline difficulties is really justified.

This year has been a bumper one for the tabloid media and its reporting on airlines. If some of the news stories, articles and opinion columns are to be believed, a number of airlines have sowed the seeds of their own destruction through their own incompetence and now, like all the best tragedies, their end is nigh. But is such commentary fair, or even accurate? Do airlines deserve the heavy criticism they receive when they screw up, and does it really point to the sort of systemic failure suggested?

There have been a number of examples in the past 12 months, but looking at just three, we can see they were all very different problems, with different reasons for the failure.

First, we saw United staff dragging a customer from a flight. The footage made the incident look appalling and it was followed by a response by management that only appeared to rub salt into the wounds. The root cause was a need to move a crew member onto a full and already boarded flight, though overbooking got the blame. To some, perhaps, overbooking might seem outrageous, but it’s a common and well-rehearsed practice. Without it, there would be far fewer seats available. It’s a complex business, as is the choreography of moving crews around; but really this was just one incident, and it turned into a PR disaster. Notably, it hasn’t changed the policy on overbooking, though you may be offered considerably more money for the inconvenience in future.

Then there was the network meltdown of British Airways on a busy May bank holiday weekend. A contractor switched off the power to a key computer system; this set off a chain of events that brought the airline almost to its knees across the globe. Again, this was seen as disastrous for BA, and evidence that cost-cutting had gone too far. Some media linked it to the introduction of “buy on board” on its short-haul economy flights, despite there being no link at all. In fact, BA’s problems exposed the dependence that it and many other companies have on IT systems for their communication. BA didn’t do a great job at handling this, and it cost it many tens of millions; but lessons will be learned and processes changed. IT failures have happened to many businesses, and will continue to do so. Airlines aren’t unique in this.

Finally, Ryanair’s recent debacle of flight cancellations due to a self-inflicted rostering and pilot-leave mess up provided many column inches for the airline’s detractors. It was an own goal, but CEO Michael O’Leary was quickly out there admitting mea culpa. Yet though it affected many hundreds of thousands of passengers, disruptions were, in fact, a drop in the ocean. Ryanair has more than 400 aircraft, and approaching 130 million annual passengers. It also normally has very high levels of punctuality and consistently exceptional financial performance. O’Leary is no fool, and knows he has to fix the image problem quickly and restore the faith. A big challenge, not least in terms of pilot relations, but he’s determined and Ryanair has the financial muscle and market presence to put this unhappy episode behind it.

So are airlines contemptuous of their passengers? Do they cut costs to the point they have IT meltdowns but carry on regardless? Do they adopt a devil-may-care approach to punctuality and reliability? You could read something along these lines every day, but the truth is far more complex. Airlines don’t deliberately seek to provoke hard-won customers (or staff), and they don’t enjoy media ridicule either. But while inconvenienced passengers might enjoy reading journalists savaging airlines for their failures, in the next month or year they will probably be back flying with the same airlines.

Daily airline operations are so complex, and the various considerations so multiple, that with such a juggle it’s still a marvel that so much of it goes so right so often every day. To state the obvious isn’t to take it for granted, but by using airlines we get to where we want to, safely; and most of the time, we get there on time with our luggage as well. We hear again and again that there must be “no excuses”; well, perhaps not. But there are explanations, and from those, lessons will be learned, without the sort of reporting of the last year. I believe the airlines discussed here take their failures seriously.

Let’s agree then, there should be no repeats. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, the glib predictions of the demise of these fine companies are greatly exaggerated.