Airlines' Protocol for After a Plane CrashMar 14, 2022
This video was made possible by Raycon. Get high-quality, comfortable, and surprisingly affordable wireless headphones for 15% off at buyraycon.com/wendover. About once every three days, somewhere in the world, a large commercial passenger
crashes. Most of these are not hugely catastrophic because most of them are fatality free. Of the 1,070 accidents recorded in the 2010s, only 112 resulted in fatalities. Even of these, the vast majority of passengers survive the average fatal
crash. In fact, half of all deaths from
planecrashes in the previous decade were due to just twelve incidents. That is, most fatal aircraft accidents are not the kind you see in the movies, the kind where there are few or no survivors.
Most are minor incidents with only one or two or a few more unfortunate victims. The industry, however, doesn't see them that way. The truth is that people are irrationally afraid of airplanes, so for air travel to be as common as it is, it requires a much higher standard of safety than any other method of transportation. Safety and profitability go hand in hand for
airlines. Despite this, however, accidents are effectively unavoidable for any of the largest
airlines. Statistically, some of these largest airlines are also some of the safest, but none are 100% secure. Therefore, with enough flight, an accident will occur.
The ten largest airlines in the world have had fatal accidents in their histories, and therefore with this level of inevitability, airlines must have a strictly defined plan for what to do after one of their planes crashes. So, let's say an accident occurs. This will almost certainly have something to do with landing or takeoff. The vast majority of accidents involve the runway, however if an accident is fatal it is much more likely to have to do with a loss of control in flight or a controlled crash into terrain. Track accidents account for more than ninety percent of accidents, but only account for twenty-five percent of fatal accidents.
The airline is never really the first to respond to an accident. Usually it's firefighters and other emergency personnel, but as soon as news of an accident reaches them, the airline will start to mobilize. Almost all airlines will have what is called a "departure team." This is a group of people, usually working at the airline's headquarters, who are trained to be part of the crisis response function in addition to their regular jobs. With larger airlines, this task force can be made up of hundreds of people in a wide variety of roles. Larger, long-haul airlines may also have smaller teams made up of people working at their remote stations who can get to crash sites more quickly while the main team travels from a headquarters.
Now, each airline will have different procedures and
protocols, but there are lost standards adopted by all. Typically, within three to four hours of an accident, an airline's emergency team will have assembled and taken off from the host airport. Typically, a flight crew and reserve aircraft would be used for this dedicated flight. With them, they would bring an emergency kit. Considering that accidents can literally happen anywhere, this would include all kinds of things such as satellite communications equipment, food, water, cooking equipment, personal protective equipment, warm clothing, tents, generators, tools and more. The team's staff is generally divided into three main areas: crisis support, humanitarian support, and communications.
Each of these would likely be split into a front team and a back team. If the accident occurs in a remote location, for example, the front team, including the most essential members of each of the larger teams, would likely go to the crash site and set up a literal base camp using the equipment along the way. team. In the meantime, the rear team could be based in the nearest town with accommodation and facilities. At the crash site, a staging area is established away and upwind of the aircraft wreckage. This can be done by some of the crisis response team members or emergency personnel.
There, people would be divided into three groups: deceased, injured, and unharmed. The deceased and injured would normally be treated by firefighters, doctors and other emergency personnel, while the airline's emergency team would likely deal with uninjured passengers. In the meantime, the rear team will have established a survivor reception center, usually in a nearby hotel, and will have arranged transport to that site. The largest group on the go team is typically the humanitarian assistance team, which is made up of volunteer airline customer service staff: flight attendants, airport agents, and others. By consolidating passengers in one facility, the airline separates them from the media and centralizes them for investigative interviews and support functions.
The surviving crew of the aircraft will usually be treated by a different team who will take them to a different facility than the passengers, which is recommended for both legal and public relations reasons. Another subset of the humanitarian assistance team will set up a facility for friends and family of passengers near the crash site. They could also set up a separate facility at the flight's origin or destination, where large groups of friends and family could be. The people there would receive updates as a group, and then would be sorted so that friends and family of the survivors would be brought to an area to gather, while others might receive the news that their family member or friend has died.
The role of these family assistance centers is amplified in the event of accidents where there is a significant long-term search and rescue operation, as is often the case with ocean accidents. In the case of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, for example, the family support centers were in operation for two months. Passenger and family assistance centers may need to accommodate hundreds and thousands of people, respectively, so the configuration and functions of these are likely to be defined in advance of any accident. Airlines will decide, for example, that they need a general room, a faith area, a psychological assistance area, a press area, a telephone and internet area, and more and more beforehand, and then it's just a matter of deciding which area goes where once. an installation location is identified.
With this and all other response efforts, actions are processed so every team member knows what to do, even in a chaotic, fast-moving scenario. Away from the crash site, the airlines will set up a crisis command center at their headquarters, including executives from every aspect of the airline's operations to coordinate their response. In addition, a call center is often quickly set up and staffed to answer questions from family and friends of passengers and the media. However, this is only a small part of overall communication efforts because, more than anything else, probably the best thing an airline can do for itself after an accident is to communicate.
That is why the third main aspect of an emergency team, beyond crisis and humanitarian response, is communications. After one of their plane crashes, an airline is concerned about business continuity, they are worried about how they will get out on the other side of the incident, so their communications need to be strategic. Crisis communications are a subset of public relations aimed at minimizing reputational damage after an incident at a business. Within this, airlines want to be sure that, to the extent possible, they can control the narrative. That means they need to communicate quickly and loudly to drown out any other noise.
Therefore, they put members of the communications team on site so they can get accurate information out as quickly as possible to the media, survivors, family, and friends. However, there will also be a team at the airline's headquarters that will have to make more methodical and strategic communication decisions. Now, at the end of the day, there end up being two main options for responding to an incident: accept blame or defer blame. Academic research on the subject shows that taking responsibility early generally leads to better public response and actually tends to decrease the size of the deals that end up being paid out, however the risk is that by accepting responsibility , this can open a company up to the legal consequences.
Therefore, despite overwhelming evidence that it is not the prudent move, organizations will often defer liability until they are absolutely certain it is their fault. If it is absolutely certain that an accident is not the airline's fault, as in the case of aircraft manufacturing defects, deferring blame may change public sentiment and position the airline as a victim, but the evidence of such cases it usually just becomes conclusive. after years of investigation, so immediately after the accident it may appear to the public that you evaded responsibility. Therefore, deciding whether to take or shift blame is quite a difficult choice for airlines.
One of the recent case studies in crisis communication involves Southwest Airlines Flight 1308 in 2018. Shortly after arriving at the cruise ship following its departure from LaGuardia Airport, the left engine failed and fragments were thrown into the aircraft's fuselage. With that, a window was broken and, due to the rapid decompression and rapidly moving debris, the passenger seated next to that window died of her injuries. The aircraft ended up landing safely and there were only minor injuries among the other passengers, but for Southwest this was a major crisis. It was the first death from an aviation accident in the US since 2009, and the first in its history.
Southwest essentially took responsibility immediately, giving each passenger $5,000 in cash and $1,000 in flight credits. They also very quickly issued empathetic and suave statements which, combined with their previous positive reputation, were effective in persuading the public that they were genuinely sorry. The company also halted all marketing for a month to let the sensitive situation fade into public discourse, so in total this incident and their response cost them about $100 million. Ultimately, after the investigation was fully completed, it was determined that it was probably not Southwest's fault. The accident was caused by a small, largely invisible fatigue fracture in one of the engine's fan blades.
Southwest followed all maintenance and inspection
protocols for this aircraft, but for some reason they did not detect the problem. Therefore, the protocols were updated after the fact. Southwest opted for the expensive but effective method of crisis communication. Had they deferred blame, they might have lost less money, but if it were ultimately discovered that they should be at fault, this could result in significant reputational damage. In the immediate response to a plane crash, airline and victim incentives are often aligned because the public responds positively to positive treatment of victims. However, it is later that the incentives become more and more divided: victims often seek compensation, airlines seek to minimize their financial responsibility.
At that point, the public is no longer interested in a plane crash. Crashes are interesting when there's a burning pile of rubble, not when a group of lawyers are sitting in a courtroom. So that is exactly why the airlines invested a huge and disproportionate amount of planning, money and effort in the response phase with the burning debris pile. It's the most effective use of those resources, and at the end of the day, for airlines, plane crashes are a financial problem. If you're like me, you constantly listen to music, podcasts, and audiobooks while you work. That means you'll probably have your headphones in for many hours a day, so it's worth making sure the ones you use are good ones.
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