Managing passenger communications in a crisis

Case Study – Ebola: Spreading the Word (and not the fear)

A guide to using passenger communications during a crisis


In November 2014, IATA invited 15below to a Crisis Communications Workshop to discuss the challenges, objectives and best practices in managing high profile and /or high volume cases which have and will continue to threaten, the travel industry.

With Ebola hitting the headlines across the world and creating a contagious feeling of fear for international travellers, 15below took a look at how airlines have – and can – use targeted, personalised, real-time communications to effectively respond to a health crisis and protect their passengers, their business and their brand.

A Problem

A theoretical scenario: an international airline is advised that a recent passenger carried has been diagnosed with Ebola. This creates multiple challenges for the company who must respond to a media frenzy, contact all passengers (and crew) that travelled on the flight and other flights using the same aircraft, as well as reassure all of their other customers, friends and family.  Fast, honest and authoritative communication is essential.

The Plan

It is crucial to contact all passengers and staff at risk, as quickly as possible.  The airline works with their passenger notification provider (such as 15below) to send each passenger personalised messages based on information stored in the PNR. Messages are sent via a variety of channels according to information available and to maximise reach (SMS, email, push and voice). The system then adds relevant comments to these PNRs, documenting actions taken and also recording queue moves, meaning staff are able to focus their attentions on manually contacting those who have not responded.

‘Crisis Communications’ Best Practice

In the event of a crisis, personalized messaging technology must be used to ensure limited human resources are directed to where they are needed most.  Providing a mechanism to keep impacted customers informed of developments, advising them of what to do as well as recording actions and notes for reporting purposes, is key to keeping everyone as calm as possible and delivering an exceptional customer service.

The following system functionality is recommended for any ‘Crisis Communications’ situation:

Situational Content:

  • A standard template should be quick and simple to set up by the airline or their notifications supplier.  It should consider a number of situational rules and display content relevant to the individual PNR – such as relating to a particular flight / date / or city etc.  These dynamic fields will enable the communication to be fully personalised for each recipient and provide personal care. Use the recipient’s local language to minimize risk of confusion and profile the content to take into account specific cultural considerations.

Communication channels:

  • People receive information over a variety of channels. Your crisis communication plan needs to meet this reality. Email, SMS, Mobile App Push are standard requirements these days but it’s also worth considering support for Voice (popular in North America) and other channels such as social media to improve reach.


  • A crisis can also be defined by scale.  It is therefore critical to have a scalable solution where your system is robust enough to handle huge spikes in notifications volume.

Fast Filters and Business Rules:

  • There are a number of filters that can be applied to PNRs both in the sorting and send process, to make sure you target and personalise the message correctly.  When speed is of the essence, select carefully what system this task takes place on – remembering what one system can do with ease, another can take significantly longer.


  • Microsites are often used for acceptances of schedule changes, refunds and credits yet these can be a very useful tool to acknowledge those who have received and read the notification – to focus attentions on those who haven’t.  A link to the microsite page can direct people to additional information or be used as a simple confirmation tool.

Reporting and Coordination:

  • As in any crisis, the media will judge you and your company on the speed and quality of your response. This will require accurate reporting information. Ensure you have the ability to pull fast, accurate reports to share with the crisis team, detailing who’s been contacted, what actions have been taken and where communication resources need to be directed.

To find out more

If you would like to find out more on how we help our customers during crisis and routine disruption, or to request an airline case study on the topic, please get in touch. Alternatively, come and talk to us at our booth (G13) at Aviation Festival Asia on 12 – 13 February 2015 held at Level 4, Suntec Convention Centre.

You can also visit our blog page, follow us on twitter @15below_travel, or join our LinkedIn page. For an updated IATA guide on ‘Crisis Communications and Social Media: A Best Practice Guide to Communicating in an Emergency’ please follow the link.

By Nicholas Key, Co-founder and Commercial Director, 15below