Crisis communications lessons from Brussels attacks – what can airlines learn?

By Marco Serusi

The recent events in Brussels have shocked Europe and reminded us that aviation is, and sadly will remain, a prime target for terrorist attacks. Both Brussels Airport and Brussels Airlines did a good job in handling the crisis. What follows is an analysis that we believe will be useful for other airlines and airports as they update their crisis plans for the future.

Twitter-first communication

Twitter is not the largest social network, nor the most used by the general public, but it is the one that always emerges as the crisis communication channel, where information and misinformation spread like wildfire. This is because its design encourages instant communication and its conversations tend to focus on the present, making it an ideal source of information for the media.

The speed at which information moves on Twitter  is exemplified by the recent events. The first tweet with a picture of the explosion appeared within 10 minutes of the bombs going off.

The news of the airport closure arrived on Twitter just 30 minutes after the first explosion thanks to a tweet by Eurocontrol.

Just 10 minutes later, the airport confirmed the explosions and the first airline re-tweeted the news within 2 minutes.Others soon followed suit.

Keeping control of the news

The information seeking frenzy that typically follows a crisis of this magnitude is often accompanied by the danger of misinformation. In previous cases, we have seen how well-meaning onlookers have become accidental spokespersons and provided incorrect information that was then reported by the media.

Brussels Airport successfully prevented this by proactively providing information on Twitter and other channels, turning its official accounts as the go-to place for accurate and updated information.

Its transparency and reliability ensured that it could keep control of the information and prevented the spread of false news. A few examples can be seen here:


CEOs on LinkedIn and Twitter

An emerging element in airline crisis communications is the front-line role being played by CEOs. This was most clearly seen in the AirAsia accident where the CEO, Tony Fernandes, took on a very public role providing updates on Twitter and speaking directly with journalists.

In the Brussels attacks, we saw interventions by the CEOs of both Brussels Airport and Brussels Airlines who used Twitter and LinkedIn respectively to share their thoughts. Their messages were then shared by the official accounts of their companies and helped give a more human face to the response.




The role of Facebook

While Twitter serves as the go-to place for last minute information, Facebook, with its longer lasting posts, is the place where many people will go to find information and get help. In crises, information tends to appear on Facebook with more detailed explanations and less frequent often than on Twitter.

Facebook Brussels attacks

In the recent times, we have also seen the introduction of the Facebook Safety Check, a feature that allows those in the affected area to let their friends know they are safe. In this incident, the feature was activated within 3 hours of the first explosions and Brussels Airport actively encouraged people to use it.

Safety check brussels

Social-first customer service

In recent times, Facebook and Twitter have also played an increasingly important role in customer service. This is because both users and brands have come to realize that these channels are far more efficient at resolving problems than traditional call center or e-mail based systems.

This is especially true in times of crises, where call centers become overloaded and information needs to be disseminated quickly. In this case, we saw how both Brussels Airport and Brussels Airlines did a good job of using the social media channels to assist users.

Dark sites

Airline and airport digital assets are generally full of vibrant colours and beautiful travel images that, unfortunately, become inappropriate during a crisis situation. For this reason, over the past 2 years, we have seen a gradual emergence of the “dark site”, a more sombre, muted, version of the original page.

On traditional websites, this is usually achieved by preparing a greyed out version of the site that can be activated in case of emergency. On social media, it is achieved by changing cover image and profile pictures to black and white versions and avoiding colours in the new posts.

dark site cover image Brussels Airlines

Lessons for the next crisis

Learning from each crisis is critical if airlines want to provide relevant and timely communications to their stakeholders. From the Brussels attacks, we have learnt the following:

  1. Airlines must monitor Twitter first, and release timely information on the channel for media, influencers and other stakeholders
  2. Giving a human face to the corporation in times of a tragedy goes a long way – as seen by the CEO posts on LinkedIn and Twitter
  3. Airlines must be ready to provide customer service across all digital channels in a crisis, as that’s where people turn to
  4. Working together is critical. In a crisis, internal silos must break down – the communications team needs to work together with the marketing team who would need to work with the customer service team to provide consistent messages across channels. Airlines must also work together with other organisations like airports and governments.

Airline crisis communication resources

SimpliFlying has helped dozens of airlines and airports improve their strategic communications and we have a number of resources and in-depth analyses designed to help airlines managed crises.  Here are a few for your reference:

  • Download “Starter Guide: Airline Crisis Communications” – A brief overview of 5 types of airlines crises concerning social media, including case studies.
  • Preview Crisis Communications Quarterly Report – An in-depth report of the 15 most important airline crises and disruptions from the latest quarter, assessing how they were handled, and how they could have been handled better.
  • A sleek videographic that reflects the state of airline crisis communications today

This article was written by Marco Serusi whom you can contact for more information. got permission to reproduce it here. We would like to sincerely thank the author for this authorisation.