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Thai Airways blacks out logo after skidding off runway: How to turn an accident into a PR disaster

Decision to protect the brand of the airline has done precisely the opposite

On 22 August 1985 – another age, in terms of aviation safety – British Airtours flight 28M caught fire on the ground at Manchester airport. While most of the people on board survived, 53 passengers and two crew died.

British Airtours was the holiday charter subsidiary of British Airways. The parent company, to its enduring credit, made no attempt to distance itself from the offshoot. Instead, BA took full responsibility. The airline threw all its efforts and expertise into helping the families of the victims, assisting survivors and working with accident investigators to find out how the tragedy had happened. Many lessons were learned from the disaster about such survivable accidents, such as the need for emergency floor lighting to guide passengers to the nearest exit.

In contrast, Thai Airways’ botched attempt to disguise its involvement in a relatively minor incident heaps nothing but ignominy upon the airline.

The circumstances of the arrival of flight TG679 from Guangzhou this week were unfortunate. Being on a plane that has run off the runway was no doubt an alarming experience for the passengers on board, and it is regrettable that 13 people were injured during the subsequent evacuation.

As an air-safety issue, though, it would have been an insignificant event unnoticed by most travellers – had an order not gone out to conceal the airline’s identity.

From the many photos that are now circulating, it would be easy to conclude that the nursery-school grade emergency paint job was the result of a “rogue” decision. You can imagine a panicking manager asking a hapless employee to apply the aviation equivalent of Tipp-Ex to the name “Thai,” fondly unaware that the airline has spent a marketing fortune on the purple, pink and gold that make its corporate colours so immediately recognisable.

Yet it appears that the decision was taken at a far higher pay grade – beyond the airline itself. A Thai Airways spokesperson is reported as saying it is the policy of Star Alliance, the grouping to which the airline belongs.

Star's “crisis communication rule” is apparently intended to protect the brand of the airline, and avoid contamination of the alliance as a whole. It has done precisely the opposite. The traveller is invited to conclude that, at a time of stretched resources, the Star Alliance and its members will devote time and effort to obscuring the truth rather than helping the passengers and uncovering the causes.

Perhaps the people who came up with this absurd policy had in mind Pan Am 103 – the Jumbo jet blown out of the skies 25 years ago. Fragments of the 747 in a field near the town, showing the aircraft name, Clipper Maid of The Seas, have become the iconic image of this tragedy. Many old aviation hands say that the pictures of the familiar blue-and-white livery hastened the demise of Pan Am, which disappeared barely two years later.

The travelling public is smarter than that. If an airline responds to an incident professionally and respectfully, its stock may actually be enhanced.

British Airways has had a formidable record since the Manchester tragedy, and is regarded as one of the very safest in the world. When flight 38 crash-landed short of the runway at Heathrow five years ago, because of a previously undiagnosed design issue, the airline made no attempt to disguise its logo – and would rightly have been ridiculed had it done so.

Given Thai Airways’ apparent desperation to disassociate itself from the Bangkok incident, I wondered what the airline had to hide. It turns out that, since 1980, Thai has suffered five fatal crashes. I would not have found that out, and you would not have read it, were it not for this ludicrous late-night paint job at Bangkok. As in so many areas of life, the cover-up has proved much more damaging than the original issue.