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Emergency… emergency

Recent air incidents have put crisis management to the test. Some airlines have performed better than others, but when it comes to it, just how prepared are airlines for the worst? Ian Putzger analyses the strategies

Statistics show that the last decade has been the safest in aviation history, with a total of 7,490 fatalities – far below the 16,766 aviation-related deaths that occurred in the 1970s. In terms of the total number of fatal accidents (eight), 2014 ranks as the safest year in modern history according to the Aviation Safety Network.


That being said, it is currently an uphill struggle to convince the general public of this, mainly due to a series of recent, high profile tragedies. Public perception of commercial aviation has been shaped by four fatal incidents within 15 months – the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the downing of MH17 over Ukraine, the loss of Air Asia’s QZ8501 near Indonesia, and the crash of germanwings 4U 9525 – three of which were in extraordinary circumstances.


In little over a year, one aircraft mysteriously disappeared, one was allegedly shot down by military action, and we recently had the crash of an airliner due to the co-pilot reportedly being in an unfit state to fly. “These are more unique causes than mechanical or human failure, which generally cause most crashes,” remarks George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting.


The way Malaysian Airlines, alongside the Malaysian authorities, handled the first of these incidents – the disappearance of flight MH370 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing – did not particularly help the situation.


“Their approach to crisis management may have been shaped by cultural or regional factors. They probably could have done a better job,” says Curt Lewis, president of Curt Lewis & Associates, an airline safety and accident investigation consultant and former corporate manager of system safety at American Airlines.


His assessment is a lot more restrained than those of other observers. Both the management of Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian authorities have been roundly criticised for a lack of urgency in the early hours as the tragedy unfolded. There was a lack of transparency in releasing information, poor coordination with other parties, and the coordination of the search activity was badly managed. Even the governments of China and Vietnam dispensed with the customary silence and voiced impatience with the lack of progress and the reluctance on the Malaysian side to share information.


Air Asia’s reaction to the tragic end of flight QZ8501 one year later suggests that lessons from the handling of the MH370 calamity were taken on board. The airline responded quickly to the news of the disappearance and was visibly trying to keep both the families of the passengers and the public updated on developments. In addition, the Indonesian authorities welcomed assistance from other nations in the search for the plane.


Lewis says it is too early to draw lessons from the germanwings incident in March, but there is no question that the carrier responded rapidly and made information available quickly. The speed with which information about the developments in the cockpit of the Airbus A320 and the history of the co-pilot were brought to light surprised many observers.


Hamlin notes that the involvement of the carrier’s Chief Executive Officer in the crisis management efforts, coupled with the announcement from parent company, Lufthansa, of an immediate payment of $54,000 to relatives of the passengers, as well as a full compensation settlement as soon as possible, were well received. “It came across as a positive note; a humane response to a bad situation,” he says.


Atlanta-based Strategic Crisis Advisors emphasises the need to have a crisis management plan ready to come into play when disaster strikes. This should establish a structure and a process for integrating executive, managerial and operational resources and provide a framework to facilitate collaboration between different departments.


The company divides this into three main parts: a response guide containing detailed action lists for executives that define command and control protocols to engage all required employees, which also underlines the required process to prioritise response actions, as well as creates additional action plans; secondly, a programme description that documents the programme, sets out parameters for the preparation, monitoring and response to a catastrophic incident, and also provides a benchmark to evaluate performance during an exercise or actual crisis; and finally, a list of supporting plans.


One factor that must not to be overlooked is the small matter of ensuring all elements of the plan comply with official regulations and guidelines. Lewis notes that the crisis plan should not only cover the management of the incident and related matters, but should also make sure that normal operations continue.


American Airlines conducts periodic exercises of its crisis management plan. These are either tabletop exercises going through the steps outlined in the plan, or live exercises carried out by airports. US airports are mandated to conduct these exercises every three years, with one airline volunteering to act as the afflicted carrier in such a simulation. In addition, there is regular training for staff who may get involved. During his tenure at American, Lewis says this was done on an annual basis and typically lasted one week.


WestJet executes all of its formal training sessions on a quarterly basis, audited by Transport Canada. On top of this, there are special training sessions for some departments that are more heavily involved, such as media relations, reports Robert Palmer, the airline’s Manager of Public Relations. Training for staff is scheduled. “If you don’t schedule it, it doesn’t happen,” he says.


Crisis management plans are not cast in concrete. Lewis says that carriers ought to revisit theirs every time there is a significant incident.


Strategic Crisis Advisors stresses the importance of communication. “Even when you do all the right things, you also need to say all the right things. People need to hear you say it,” visitors to the company website are advised.


Its crisis communication programme is built on three main elements: a strategy, a plan and spokespeople. The plan provides guidance for response strategies based on circumstances (for instance, could the airline be blamed, or is it a victim? Are there fatalities?), as well as guidance on what to say.


The consulting firm’s crisis management plan calls for the designation of a guardian to oversee the relevant crisis management planning, verify the response processes defined in the plans, and audit the effectiveness of the entire response organisation. “Someone has to be in charge, but many departments are involved – safety individuals, accident investigators, recovery teams, people responsible for family needs, as well as most of the operations department,” says Lewis.


But where in an airline should crisis management reside? “Overall management of a crisis is a function of operations control. American has a command centre for removing an incident outside of the dispatch area,” Lewis says.


“You have to involve all aspects of the organisation because there are many different facets to it. You need to get executives and communications staff involved. You also need finance people to bring cash and credit cards. The airline will need to spend money on things like rental cars, hotels, food,” says Palmer. >>

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