British Airways has been publically criticised after an emergency landing message was accidentally played during a trans-Atlantic flight last month. At approximately 3am, three hours into the flight between London and Miami, cabin crew issued the following recorded message over the aircraft’s public address system: This is an emergency; we will shortly be making an emergency landing on water.

At the time the message was played, the plane was travelling at 35,000 feet (10,668 meters) above water. Passengers panicked as they prepared for what they thought was an impending plummet towards the ocean. Passenger Duncan Farquharson who was travelling with his wife gave the following account of the reaction on board: “We looked at each other and figured we were both about to die. Families with children were distraught and people were in tears. It was very distressing.”

A subsequent announcement retracting the emergency landing message then came over the public address system 30 seconds later. Crew informed the passengers that the emergency message was issued by mistake, instructed them to ignore it and apologised for the error. According to an article in the Telegraph (UK) passengers described how the pilot did not acknowledge the incident until the plane arrived at Heathrow Airport and did not attempt to provide an explanation. It was suggested in the same article that the attitude of British Airways to this error was perceived by Mr and Mrs Farquharson as ‘blasé’ and unsympathetic to the distress which passengers experienced as a result of the mistaken announcement.

In an article by Leigh Goessl in the Digital Journal it was reported that the same emergency recording was played by mistake on a British Airways flight between London and Hong Kong in August 2010.

In the era of global digital media, people’s bad experiences on airplanes usually gets a lot of public interest. Whether in mainstream or social media, broadcasts about airline safety can be punishing for a brand.

Given the importance most airlines place on safety as a core brand value, any further incident of this nature could be damaging for the reputation of British Airways.