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Lessons for any company in AirAsia plane crash

After the demise of AirAsia Flight 8501, the company CEO quickly apologized, comforted families of the victims, and sought solutions. In the history of corporate mea culpas, this one stands out.

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AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes walks past relatives of passengers on AirAsia Flight 8501 at Juanda International Airport in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, Dec. 28.

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Corporate officials are getting better at taking responsibility for their company’s tragedies, but nothing quite compares to this week’s actions by Tony Fernandes, the chief executive of the Malaysian airline company AirAsia

After one of his airplanes fell into ocean Dec. 28 with 162 people onboard, the young entrepreneur quickly met with families of the missing to comfort them and to apologize. He promised he would not “be running away from any of our obligations,” implying financial compensation. A day later, he took a hands-on approach to the recovery effort. 

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His actions seemed more sincere than the usual sort of “reputation repair” adopted by many corporate executives after a disaster or mistake.

“I am the leader of this company, and I have to take responsibility. That is why I am here,” he told reporters in the Indonesian city of Surabara where the aircraft took off. “Even though we don’t know what’s wrong, the passengers were on my aircraft.” After seeing the plane’s wreckage, he tweeted about the “soul-destroying” experience.

AirAsia is the largest budget airline in Asia with 8,000 employees and a solid safety record, which may help account for Mr. Fernandes’ spirit of public contrition and a quickness to make amends and seek solutions. His actions are in contrast to the official reactions to the two other air disasters last year involving another airline, state-owned Malaysia Airlines: the mysterious loss of Flight 370 in March and the shooting down of Flight 17 over Ukraine in July. In those tragedies, officials were far less responsive or transparent in acknowledging mistakes or making amends.

The last prominent apology by a top executive was a mea culpa by General Motors chief executive officer Mary Barra last March. She apologized for mistakes made by the world’s second largest automaker in putting a faulty ignition switch in 1.6 million vehicles – and knowing about it for years despite many reported fatalities. She promised to rearrange GM’s safety management. In contrast, it took petroleum giant BP a long time after its 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to learn how to be both contrite and corrective.

“Do not ruin an apology with an excuse,” said Benjamin Franklin. He might have added that “I’m sorry” is never enough unless the damage is also repaired. 

Any executive who recognizes an error with sincere remorse and then puts it to rights sets an important precedent. For the airline industry, Fernandes has done that in the days after this latest tragedy.