The Airline Industry's Hellish Summer

Jo Piazza
·Managing Editor
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Malaysia Airlines planes(Photo: AP)

Not since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have there been so many highly publicized fatal airline tragedies in so short a timespan. 

In four months, one plane has gone missing, and three more large commercial flights have gone down in devastating crashes — spawning massive anxiety for air travelers. 

On a normal day, consumer sentiment surrounding airlines is emotional and irrational, but plane crashes naturally trigger a fear response that leads to negative attitudes.

“People will absolutely think twice about getting on a flight right now,” said Jeff Wise, the author of “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger.” “It feels like a completely rational thing to not want to get on their planes at this point.”

In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, carrying 239 people, disappeared. On July 17, Flight MH17, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with 295 people aboard, crashed near the Russian border with Ukraine.

Related: Malaysia Airlines Plane Crashes in Ukraine 

On July 23, a twin-engine turboprop plane crashed in Taiwan’s Penghu Islands, and on July 24, an Air Algerie flight crashed while traveling from Burkina Faso, Africa, to Algiers, Algeria, with 110 passengers onboard.

Related: Air Algerie Flight AH5017 Crashes

Malaysia Airlines flies approximately 37,000 passengers on 250 flights per day to 80 destinations and has won numerous awards for safety and general excellence. A review by airlineratings.com earlier this year gave the airline a safety rating of five stars out of seven.

But, consumer perception has nothing to do with the airline’s actual safety record or whether or not the airline is officially to blame for the incidents.

“People are going to avoid Malaysia Airlines, rightly or wrongly,” says Alastair Rosenschein, an aviation consultant and former Boeing 747 pilot for British Airways. “They have lost two 777s in fairly quick succession. That is an appalling record for an airline. Who hasn’t heard of Malaysia Airlines now?”

These days, how consumers perceive a brand has much more to do with persistent media coverage and social media quarterbacking. Airline tragedies have now dominated the 24-hour news cycle for the past four months.

Related: In the Wake of Recent Plane Crashes, How to Ease Fear of Flying

"There is a huge concern for the industry as a whole. The typical person doesn’t differentiate among airlines when we have this level of crisis," said Rachel Davis Mersey, an expert on consumer insight and associate professor at Northwestern University.  

"Even well-educated people are right to be spooked right now. I believe the airline industry will absolutely take an immediate hit while these tragedies are top of mind," Mersey said.

Following past grisly tragedies, individual airlines have gone so far as to rebrand themselves.

After ValuJet Airlines Flight 592 crashed in 1996 into the Florida Everglades, killing 110 people, the company grounded its planes for months. In order to revamp its image with consumers, the company purchased a smaller airline called AirTran Airways and subsequently began using AirTran’s name to shake off the ValuJet stigma.

Of course, the entire industry can’t rebrand itself, and it may not need to. Some airline industry experts say that while tragic, the crashes will have absolutely no effect on whether a vast majority of people fly.

The global air travel consumer has a short memory, which is highly localized to their home markets and the places they fly. 

"Most don’t know where Burkina Faso or Mali are," said aviation analyst Robert W. Mann Jr., president of R.W. Mann & Company, Inc., an airline industry analysis firm. "Every loss of life is a tragedy, but in the big picture of rapidly growing air travel worldwide, especially so in developing economies, the airline industry still operates with a statistically, vanishingly small accident rate. That’s why people continue to fly despite the headlines."

Other experts note that these crashes are simply an unfortunate coincidence. 

“Except for Malaysia, it is all different airlines,” said travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt. “It is possible these airlines will see an effect, and I think consumers may be cautious about which airline they fly, but it will not have a significant long-lasting impact on the industry.”