In 2013, a Spanish airline known as Air Europa had an incident with a wheelchair passenger after denying access for not carrying a passenger. The passenger Mara Zabala, of Spanish origin, complained to the employees of the airline for not allowing her to board the plane. The employees of the airline argued that, due to security policy, it was necessary for the passenger to have a companion who could assist her in case of an emergency.
Zabala, who by the way is an expert in social communication, used Twitter to denounce the company that forbade her to travel unaccompanied when other companies do. Under the hashtags “#denuncia #discapacidad #denuncia”, in a short time reached thousands of retweets, so the message of denunciation quickly gained popularity.
The tweet generated many criticisms of the company not only for denying the service to Zabala – when she had previously traveled alone with Air Europa – but also for not having facilities for people with reduced mobility that other airlines offered. The mistake of Air Europa was to ignore the damage to its image that comments on social networks were causing. The company chose to ignore the incident. The most he did was to reiterate to Zabala what his internal policy stipulated about passengers in need of additional assistance. In the absence of a communication strategy focused on mitigating the crisis, comments on social networks continued to escalate. Eventually, a problem in customer service escalated to touch a much larger issue: that of discrimination.
The problem escalated to attract the attention of Spanish legislators and, eventually, the European Commission. The Popular Party of Spain asked Air Europa to hold a meeting to discuss the incident. Given the refusal of Air Europa, the Spanish Popular Party presented the case to the European Commission through the Group of the European People’s Party.
Soon, the European Commission published a report on current legislation that allows airlines to request a passenger in a wheelchair to travel with a companion. The report stated that the legislation helps airlines benefit from forcing users with disabilities to buy another plane ticket. Based on this report, Zabala appealed to various organizations for the protection of persons with disabilities, stating that the legislation is clearly discriminatory. One of these bodies, the Spanish Committee of Representatives of Persons with Disabilities, demanded that Air Europa change its internal policy on its own initiative, since the current regulation does not guarantee them. For its part, the European Commission announced that the regulation of airlines in terms of security would be reviewed in order to address problems such as Zabala, but to date there have been no changes.
The case of Air Europa demonstrates that the omission of a problem is a problem in itself, sometimes just as damaging to reputation as making an equivocal decision about it. Starting with a tweet, the magnitude of the crisis escalated to reach the halls of national and supranational governmental instances. A strategy of silence before the problem contributed to increase the crisis since, for many users, it seemed that the company was not doing anything to solve the problem.
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