In order to better understand the drivers of sentiment towards the main airlines in the Middle East (Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Saudia), we conducted a detailed analysis of over half a million mentions during a three month period. The research was conducted on behalf of the Aerospace division of the Toulouse MBA programme.
Why quality counts
It was purely a numbers game, so the thinking once went. Volume of online mentions was considered a reliable barometer of brand strength – the more people who were talking about your company, the better.
Rather, it’s the companies capable of driving and maintaining the most positive sentiment over the greatest number of areas that are most likely to come out on top. Company reputation is, in other words, all about the detail – a topic-centered, not volume-dependent, phenomenon.
Air travel experiences in the Middle East
For the study, the social media universes of four major Middle Eastern airlines – Qatar Airways, Etihad, Emirates and Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) – were analysed, with over half a million online mentions in both English and Arabic captured between March and May 2017. After collection, the data was first broken down using proprietary artificial intelligence techniques. A further layer of accuracy was then added through the use of the Crowd – a group of trained contributors who provided human analysis and understanding to the data.
Through this unique approach to data analysis, a confidence level of 95% was achieved with a margin of error of 2.15%, ensuring that the data provided a true reflection of how people really felt towards the airlines over the study period.
The results uncovered the drivers of both positive and negative sentiment for each of the airlines at a detailed, topic-based level. Furthermore, how that sentiment fluctuated over the 3-month period was monitored. Fluctuation in sentiment levels by carrier between March and May 2017
What matters to passengers?
Of the elements contributing towards a good or bad flying experience, aesthetics, ethics, and in-flight amenities were the topics referenced most often by online authors, with each subject making up 10% of the overall discussion. Conversations related to staff claimed a 9% share, while airport experience, brand, and response time each took 8%. In-flight service and baggage handling had shares of 7% and 6% respectively. Pricing and special offers/promotions each contributed 5% towards the overall topic analysis.
Most discussed topics based on sentiment-bearing conversations
Overall sentiment – Qatar Airways leads
When breaking down the data by airline, the volume-reputation disconnect first became apparent. Despite claiming only the second-highest volume of mentions (at 165,276), for example, Qatar Airways was the carrier that performed best in terms of overall sentiment – 44% of total sentiment surrounding the airline was positive, against only 9% negative.
By contrast, of the online discussion centred around Emirates – the carrier with the largest number of mentions over the period by a large margin (at 243,633) – 39% was positive, and 16% negative. While Etihad (with 78,705 mentions) claimed the same proportion of negative feelings, its proportion of positive sentiment trailed Emirates’ by 8%, at 31%.
Of all the airlines, Saudia (with 59,447 mentions) fared worst, with 40% of total sentiment directed toward the carrier being negative, and only 15% positive. (Saudia was also the only airline with consistently negative net sentiment over the three months.)
Importantly, although Qatar Airlines edged out both Emirates and Etihad, all three airlines performed strongly over the period. Such findings dovetail further with Skytrax’s awarding of Qatar Airlines best airline for 2017, with Emirates and Etihad also featuring in the top 10.
Sentiment breakdowns by airline
The breakdown – why Qatar snapped up first place
Opinion data at the topic level provides insight into Qatar Airway’s strength, with the study showing that the airline’s reputation for airport experience, baggage handling, aesthetics, in-flight amenities, in-flight service, pricing, response time, special offers/promotions and staff all superseded competitors’ over the study period. Areas in which the airline failed to claim the top spot were brand, which was taken by Emirates, and ethics, for which Etihad won out overall.
By contrast, of the four carriers, Saudia emerged as the worst in terms of a number of factors including: aesthetics, airport experience, brand, ethics, in-flight amenities, in-flight service, pricing, special offers/promotions and staff.
Breakdown of positive and negative sentiment at the topic level
During the study, the effects that specific events had on airlines’ reputations were also tracked and analysed. For Qatar Airways, for example, discussions around the launch of its Qsuite – a luxurious business class cabin – and the announcement of the renewal of a partnership with Al-Ahli football club were both drivers of positive feelings. Etihad, by contrast, saw its reputation boosted by #electronicban and #MakeFlyingGreatAgain.
For Emirates, an April Fool’s joke posted by the airline – the claim that it would be launching a triple-decker aircraft – generated substantial positive engagement, as did the carrier’s “Fly the friendly skies for real” campaign. Saudia saw positive feelings boosted by its handling of the electronic ban and the launch of an online flight management app.
…. and the bad, crisis management
On 5 June 2017 political sanctions were imposed on Qatar, with five countries including the UAE and Saudi cutting ties with the country.
To assess the impact that a major global incident would have on an airline, DataEQ tracked conversations pertaining to Qatar Airlines during the month of June. In total, Qatar Airways received 112,095 mentions during that time, a substantial amount of chatter – 68% of the volume the airline had received during the previous three months combined.
Conversations spiked during the first four days of the crisis, during which time the brand was mentioned over 35,000 times, with the majority of mentions linked to the impact that the sanctions were having on those flying with the airline. The airline did experience a shift in sentiment on 20 June, following the announcement of the airline winning Skytrax’s best airline in the world. Positive sentiment was also driven by the launch of the new QSuite at the Paris Airshow and various promotions run by the airline.
Daily volume of conversation about Qatar Airways in June
Sanctions impacts airline directly
With airspace and certain offices closed, Qatar Airways was forced to cancel a large number of flights and introduce refund procedures for those impacted. Despite an initial decline in positive sentiment around the incident – part of which arose off the back of the airline’s delay in responding to flight cancellations and requests for refunds – by 13 June, the airline’s reputation had recovered.
Monthly sentiment analysis towards Qatar Airways (1 Mar – 30 June)
Having ranked marginally ahead of Emirates in terms of positive sentiment during the initial research period (1 March – 31 May), Qatar Airways weathered the negative crisis-associated sentiment well.
Despite the brief period during which positive sentiment declined, the airline ended June with 38% positive sentiment for the month: a mere 6% behind its three-month average of 44%. Moreover, its 12% negative sentiment was only 3% less than its average score for the April – June period. The study appears to show that for top performer Qatar Airways, consistently pleasing consumers has meant that the airline has been able to not only come out as a favourite among the public, but has been able develop a high degree of brand resilience, rapidly bouncing back from this possible PR crisis.
Reputation equals resilience, but it’s all about the detail
Simple tallies of followers and online mentions are a blunt tool – reputation strength hinges on brands’ ability to deliver consistently across a wide range of areas. In the case of airlines, everything from customer service to aesthetics plays a part in the overall strength of the brand.
Given their strong performances over a range of topics and high overall positive sentiment levels, it’s unsurprising that three of the airlines in the study – Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad – are among the world’s top carriers.
For Qatar Airways particularly, delivering excellently across a broad range of areas seems to be paying dividends. Given that the carrier is not the most spoken about online, the study provides proof that it’s not how many people are talking about a brand that matters, it’s what they’re saying that counts.
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