Ethiopian Airlines’ decision to continue operating direct flights to China amid the worsening coronavirus outbreak threatens to erode the airline’s hard-won brand equity.
While 59 other carriers from 44 different countries have all grounded their flights to China, Ethiopian Airlines insists that it will follow directives from the World Health Organization and until it is deemed unsafe by the international body, the airline will continue its daily flight schedule to/from China.
Their decision to keep flying to China is provoking an increasingly toxic response online and in the Ethiopian press. The company’s Twitter page is flooded with pleas from African users for the airline to change course.
“This decision is reckless as it put entire African continent at risk,” said Zimbabwean entrepreneur Kelvin Mupungu, adding that threat posed by the continued flights endangers the entire continent since “most African transit via Ethiopia.”
To make matters worse, the company is not communicating at all with the public, creating an information vacuum that can potentially do severe damage to the airline’s pristine brand reputation in Africa.
The company, so far, has only published one statement on the matter published last Friday and since then has not provided a single update.
“@flyethiopian do you employ brand and reputation management expertise?” asked Aly-Khan Satchu, a Nairobi-based investment banker, to his half-million+ followers on Twitter. “This decision is going to be diabolical. It’s wilful. And it’s scientifically outrageous,” he added.
Here’s the nightmare scenario that Ethiopian Airlines should be worried about from a brand positioning point of view: since the Novel Coronavirus is reportedly undetectable at the earliest stage of infection, and an outbreak does occur in an African country where the “patient zero” was deemed to have travelled on an Ethiopian Airlines flight long after the risks were well-documented and most other carriers had ceased operations to China… the adverse brand repercussions could be severe.
The fact that this News24.com article about Botswana’s first suspected case of coronavirus prominently mentioned the fact that the student came from China on an Ethiopian Airlines flight provides a clue of the kind of media coverage that will ensue in the event of a larger outbreak somewhere in Africa.
Why Politics May be a Factor in ETH’s Decision to Keep Flying to China
The wording of a recent CGTN news report on ETH’s decision to keep flying to China provided a tiny clue that politics may also play a role. In a segment that aired on Sunday, the presenter said that the airline’s decision to maintain its flight scheduled “reaffirmed its support to the Chinese government and its people.”
As a state-owned company, Ethiopian Airlines is no doubt exposed to more internal political pressure than a similar privately-owned company would be.
Of course, there’s no indication that either the Chinese or Ethiopian governments are pressuring the company to keep flying, it’s just speculation given the lack of communication from the company, but it is certainly a possibility worth considering.