What happened to my beloved Indigo? – an open letter to the President of India’s Number 1 Airline

Dear Aditya,

I’m writing to you as a fan of brand Indigo and an admirer of someone of your stature. Not too long ago I was a frequent flyer of your airline. Of the 25 domestic flights I took annually almost 20 were 6E. Over the last two years I began to feel that the brand I had come to admire, between 2007 and 2011 had begun to lose its charisma and I gradually drifted to other airline brands. I take 40 annual flights and none of them are Indigo. Will tell you why someday in detail. But the answers lie in what Southwest does in the US that Indigo does not do here.

I understand you are a lawyer by training. After reading the apology tweet and then the 7-page letter to the Minister of Civil Aviation – which has been leaked online either by your office or one of the recipients, which is also a sad way of dealing with the incident – I am convinced about what I had begun to feel in 2015. That brand Indigo had become arrogant, perhaps owing to the numero uno position and lack of credible competition.

Let’s never forget that customers do not exist for brands but brands certainly exist for customers. People can live without brands but brands cannot survive without people, who put their money to enjoy a brand. My first flight for 2018 was booked from Mangalore to Bangalore. After having seen the video of your staff who represent you and the brand I do not want to be a customer atleast till such time that I am convinced the brand is going back to being humble. I would certainly like my tickets cancelled and money refunded in full. I had the choice of other airlines on that sector but still chose your airline because I believed in it. Not now. Not atleast for a while.

Well, I am not taking sides. I do not even know the customer who was assaulted. All I can say is I do not want to face such a situation which came across as life threatening. Let me state some of my thoughts over the last 24 hours as a life-long student of reputation management.

  1. Your twitter handle should have had the apology at the same time the airline handle had it. That would have shown the human side of the leader of the brand. It is your personal choice but in times like these you need to make that tough choice.
  2. In an age of video, your apology should have been a video message to the affected customer and to all current and future customers, to show that you are leading from the front. There was no such assurance with empathy forthcoming.
  3. Your Public Relations head has a nasty twitter bio, nastier twitter cover photo and even nastier method of retweeting third party tweets, including one that says the airlines enemies could have planned this. Why should I trust an airline with my life, since it may have enemies, as suggested by the PR chief.
  4. Be proactive rather than coming across as someone who wanted to push things under the carpet. If the incident took place on October 15th, why did you have to wait for it to go public and viral to get into damage control mode on November 8th. The right thing to do, given that the incident took place in the presence of eye witnesses was to put out a public statement the very night you made a call to the customer. You would have earned a higher level of respect and a stronger reputation.
  5. I have no clue whether the passenger was compensated monetarily. I get an impression he was, because if he was not this is an ideal case under Section 307 of the IPC. Because, the screen grabs leave an impression that if the pinning down had lasted a few more minutes there could have been a loss of life. Thank God that it did not reach such a situation.
  6. All the employees involved in the incident should have been dismissed from service before you made the call to the passenger. If they were involved in either instigating or carrying out orders based on instigation they have no role to be part of a brand you have nurtured. By merely suspending them temporarily you have become an accomplice in the crime.

I’m sorry my words seem harsh. But I write as a passionate believer in good Indian brands. And yours was one of them. And hopefully will be again.

We are all going by what we have heard and seen. Neither you nor I were at the site of the incident. You are going by versions of what your employees have told you and it certainly is your right to defend them. But this has only earned you detractors. (Read the Tylenol case study please.)

I’m not saying the passenger was right. He may or may not have been.

I am sad at the way you let this go out of hand.

  1. I am sad that video clearly shows two younger men in uniform manhandling an older man who is one of many customers that the airline has had. Tomorrow, that passenger could be my dad or me or my colleague.
  2. I’m sad because your apology was full of legalese and did not come across as from the heart. An incident of this nature warranted that you visit the passenger and apologise in person offering him a free flight on two sectors to have a better experience. A telephone call is not Public Relations. It is mere lip service. A video showing you with genuine emotion would have been the order of the day and far better.
  3. I’m sad because I have sent three tweet messages today to Indigo requesting help to cancel my tickets and there has been no response. Radio silence is not customer service.
  4. I’m sad because your PR chief has either not advised you correctly or you have not heeded his advice.
  5. I’m sad because your letter to the minister is nothing more than farce, drafted hurriedly overnight and comes across as a cover up.

I had forgiven the airline for cheating me when Bruce Ashby was the CEO during launch phase and his office had written to me apologising for short-changing me. Today, as an observer I feel ashamed that this incident happened.

If there is a shield of arrogance, you may choose to ignore this because Indians and the Indian media move on quickly. Trust me, as a student of reputation management I am sure this will become a case study about an Indian brand, which is much admired, going astray. Brands face crises from time to time and they tide over them. This one may not seem like a disaster. But I know several people who take one or two flights a year and chose Indigo but will not make that choice now.

I hope passengers like Mr Katyal never have to be stopped from boarding a bus to satisfy someone’s ego. If passengers like him provoke the staff put him on a no-fly list or complain to the police. And I hope employees like those we saw in the video exercise restraint, are trained in empathy and learn self-control.

I hope to fly on Indigo, someday again. But certainly not in the near future unless I see genuine remorse. All the best for the choices you make. I hope to get my flights cancelled.



Amith Prabhu on BloggerAmith Prabhu on FacebookAmith Prabhu on Twitter
Amith Prabhu
Amith Prabhu is the Founder of the PRomise Foundation which organises PRAXIS, India’s annual summit of reputation management professionals.

He is also the Founding Dean of the School of Communications & Reputation (SCoRe).

He can be reached at @amithpr on twitter.

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