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Aviation Crisis Management Essay


Introduction

Emergency response plans are among the most important contingency measures that an airline company should have. Despite the clear importance of a carefully thought-out emergency response plan, many organizations do not have one. This could be caused by the relative rarity of airplane and helicopter accidents. However, when an accident occurs, it is usually too late to create a plan as the first hour is critical during such an occurrence. Furthermore, the mismanagement of an accident could be disastrous for an airline company. The goal of this paper is to provide information about the concepts surrounding this issue and to look into the impact of emergency response on the reputation of an airline and legitimacy based on real-life cases involving different companies.

Role of Emergency Response Planning

The usefulness of an emergency response plan lies in creating a thorough plan of action to be used during an accident, natural disaster, or any other crisis that occurs outside of the normal plan of operations. This allows a company to seamlessly transition from normal operation to emergency crisis operation and prevent such issues as panic and confusion at critical times. By definition, a crisis is a chain of events with consequences dangerous enough that they may put people in harm’s way, destroy property, pollute the environment, or a combination of these conditions. Crises are almost inevitably unexpected, but even if an event could be foreseen, it is likely to occur at an unexpected time.

Since almost every crisis can bring harm to the airline’s stakeholders such as passengers, crew, and others, the company holds a great responsibility to both avoid and respond appropriately to crises. The stakes involved in crises may escalate over time if they are not being addressed by the airline company or any other party responsible for emergency response. Therefore, all problems of this nature should be addressed as quickly as possible to avoid increased damage or harm.

To provide this response in a minimal amount of time, each company must have a prepared emergency response plan. Otherwise, the initial chaos and panic of the crisis will waste precious time that could otherwise be used to resolve the issue, address the media, and inform the possible victims. If a company lacks such a plan, the response is likely to come late, and more damage could be done to people and property (Booth 2015).

Crises that an airline may encounter are numerous and can vary in their severity. They may include technical accidents, human error, hijackings, terrorist acts, natural disasters, poor weather conditions, crew or customer belligerence or air traffic control error, as well as other occurrences that might not have been previously encountered. Due to the great number of possible situations, emergency response plans are created in such a way that one plan could address multiple situations. Airlines are not always able to provide their side of the story before the first news of an incident is broadcast, so a timely press release should be prepared beforehand with all available information. Similar texts could be prepared for emergency press conference questions, as well as other cases (Stolzer, Halford & Goglia 2016).

The transition provided by the plan also includes temporary adjustments to employees’ responsibility. Often, a specific person is chosen to be the face of the company. This role is usually fulfilled by an important executive such as the CEO or a vice president of the company.

The choice not only is based on the experience that a high-ranking member of the company might have but also on his or her status. When the CEO of a company performs such difficult acts as comforting victims’ families and informing the media about the number of people killed due to a crisis, it shows that the company is taking matters extremely seriously and is ready to halt all current plans until the situation is resolved. It also puts a real face on the company and its response to the crisis.

The spokesperson often has to deal with the most difficult criticism, should the situation escalate, but can also improve the standing of the company if the crisis can be resolved quickly. The airline industry can be highly competitive, and if the company’s reputation or legitimacy are lacking, it could have a highly negative effect on their business (McEntire 2014).

Airline Reputation and Legitimacy

Reputation and legitimacy are essential for any company that operates within a competitive environment. The same applies to airline companies. Despite the high cost of equipment, planes, and service, the number of airlines is relatively high. Many of the most popular airlines have long histories of operation and often have already established a certain reputation. This explains why the level of reputation and legitimacy that a company has is extremely important for its success (Helm & Tolsdorf 2013).

The legitimacy of an aviation company is based on its safety record. Has the company experienced an abnormal number of incidents in recent years? How did it respond? Both metrics can strongly affect the legitimacy of the company. A company’s legitimacy is often expressed in the stakeholders’ perception of its actions as they will react to whether those actions were appropriate, acceptable, and in keeping with societal norms and expectations.

This factor can force the company to change its operations to adapt to the expectations of its stakeholders. The company must pursue actions that would be seen as appropriate by the population and avoid actions that would be seen as unacceptable. If these rules are not followed, the company can lose legitimacy. Such an outcome would make the future of the company uncertain because it affects the sales of tickets and the airline’s viability (Seo & Park 2016).

Reputation is a similar concept. Like legitimacy, it is based on the stakeholders’ perceptions and opinions of the company. Unlike legitimacy, reputation is a more open concept. The advantages of developing a good reputation include a likely increase in the financial performance of the company. Positive attention may bring in new customers and investors while also providing a competitive edge to the airline.

Reputation is also easier to lose because it is affected not only by crises but also by smaller issues. A company’s reputation may be harmed due to poor quality food provided during flights, uncomfortable seats, excessively expensive policies, and many other mundane issues that add up over time to create a worse reputation for the company. Successful companies can have both qualities but will also constantly attempt to improve their operation to avoid losing their competitive edge to a company with better service and a superior safety record (Vlachos & Lin 2014).

Structure of Emergency Response Planning

The structure of emergency response planning is based on crisis management and consists of three phases. The first phase is focused on the prevention of problems. This phase includes analysis of warning signs of possible crises and their possible prevention. This concept is often not included in emergency response plans due to their nature as reactive documents. It is also capable of creating a false sense of security that can hinder responsive operations (Coombs 2014).

The second is the response phase, and it is focused on minimization and containment of damage to stakeholders, property, environment, and the organization. During this phase, crisis managers are activated and must respond to the continuing crisis under demanding time pressure. Early reports on crises can be misleading due to a lack of information regarding the incident, which can force managers to be cautious in their actions, sometimes having to act with minimal available information due to the need for a timely response. This might be the most important phase because it includes both the resolution efforts and working with the media.

A company’s failure to succeed in both actions could lead to irreparable damage to its legitimacy and reputation. Even a successfully handled crisis could become disastrous to the company if coverage were to be focused on the apparent incompetence of the organization, its crew, or its policies. Thus, a press release should be prepared in advance with the most accurate information known to the company. This should not be the end, however, as new information should constantly be released to the press as it becomes available to avoid rumors and misinformation (Shaw 2017).

The last phase is called the recovery phase, and it takes place after the crisis is over. During this phase, the organization examines mistakes or successes in its response to the crisis, manages public perception of the incident and attempts to restore the damage that was caused to its legitimacy and reputation.

The Impact of Emergency Response Planning on Reputation and Legitimacy

A solid and well-thought-out emergency response plan can play a crucial part in creating a positive reputation for a company as well as a level of legitimacy that would otherwise be unachievable. Myriad cases have shown both positive and negative outcomes for various companies dealing with emergencies with and without an emergency response plan. Cases that include incidents involving airline emergencies often offer dramatic examples because of the level of tragedy that a mismanaged airline emergency can bring. This section will provide several examples of emergencies that were handled by various airline companies and the impact that these situations had on their legitimacy and reputation.

One airline company that has a history of effective emergency response planning is Singapore Airlines. Since its establishment in 1972, the company has had to deal with a significant number of crises, and a majority of them were handled in a way that allowed the company to avoid losing credibility and in some cases become more legitimate than it was previously. The crash of SQ006 in Taiwan was one such case.

The incident occurred on October 31, 2000, at 23:18. The SQ006 flight was a Boeing 747-400 headed for Los Angeles from Taipei’s Chiang Kai-shek airport. While trying to take off during inclement weather, the pilot made a wrong turn down a closed runway. This led to the plane crashing into construction equipment. The Boeing broke up into three parts and burst into flames. Out of 179 people on board, 83 people were killed, and 56 more were injured. It was the first crash of this magnitude that the company had experienced and served as a test of the company’s reputation as a safe airline (Pangarkar 2016).

The response to this catastrophe was immediate. The CEO of Singapore Airlines was in New Zealand at the time for a business meeting, but as soon as the news reached him, Dr. Cheong Choong Kong came back to Taipei to monitor and assist in the emergency response. During the event, he assumed the position of the company’s spokesman alongside the company’s Vice President for Public Affairs Rick Clements. He immediately accepted full responsibility for the incident despite one of the reporters proposing a scenario where the airport staff misled the pilots into taking the wrong turn (Pangarkar 2016).

Singapore Airlines CEO during the Press Conference.
Fig. 1 Singapore Airlines CEO during the Press Conference (Singapore 2017).

Following a press conference, Cheong personally spoke to the families of the victims and paid his respects to the people who were killed in the accident. Throughout the next day, he continued his involvement by visiting the injured passengers in hospitals while also meeting with the next of kin of the victims. After the first press conference, Cheong returned to Singapore but soon visited Taipei again. During this second visit, he again met with the survivors and ensured that the airline was assigning priority to provide help to the victims of the incident and their families (Pangarkar 2016).

Besides the actions of the CEO, the company addressed the issue by flying in trained grief and trauma counselors to Taipei. The level of trauma from such an event can be great, and this action was a crucial part of the emergency response plan. The company assigned a person to each of the survivors and next of kin to provide comfort and assist in dealing with grief. These people were self-selected and extensively trained by professional counselors. The company sent a total of 163 people to assist in this manner, and their actions were frequently mentioned in press releases. Without preparation, such a team would not be available, which only accentuates the importance of emergency response planning (Pangarkar 2016).

Compensation was offered quickly to the injured passengers and the families of the deceased and was much larger than the legal requirements demanded such cases. The families of the passengers killed in the accident received US$400,000, and the surviving passengers received US$20,000. The majority of lawsuits in Singapore and Taiwan were settled by the company by 2004 with no major legal action taken (Pangarkar 2016).

It is possible that the emergency response plan followed by Singapore Airlines was based on guidelines created by Marion Pinsdorf, a former senior corporate manager at Fordham University who researched the handling of air crashes. Just as the actions of Singapore Airlines suggest, his guidelines prioritized the families of the victims. He argued that it is of utmost concern to provide help and accurate information to the affected families. Another guideline pointed out that putting a human face on the airline can have a positive effect on the response. The last important point that Pinsdorf covered involved the extremely limited time that a company has to present their side of the story, with a time limit ranging from 40 minutes to 12 hours (Fearn-Banks 2016). All of these factors were addressed by Singapore Airlines in exemplary fashion (Pangarkar 2016).

To deal with such incidents, the company maintains an office that is in a constant state of readiness throughout the year. One such office was activated at Changi Airport at its crisis management center. The center was used by Singapore Airlines executives to manage the company’s emergency response to the accident. One strategy they employed was called ‘stealing the thunder’, which proposes that the company should attempt to release the information available to them before speculation can begin. They did so by releasing a statement only three hours after the crash occurred (Pangarkar 2016).

Also, the company has pursued proactive strategies to prevent similar accidents from occurring. Better runway identification systems were installed in all aircraft, and the footwear for all flight attendants was changed from sandals to closed-heel shoes. In a later press release, Cheong emphasized that the company is prioritizing the prevention of similar accidents rather than seeking to blame anyone in particular. All of the previously mentioned actions addressed the three primary factors for disaster containment based on research by Shrivastava and Siomkos: maintenance of image and reputation, the establishment of good customer relationships, and mobilization of resources (Pangarkar 2016).

No operation is perfect, however, and Singapore Airlines made a few mistakes in handling the crisis. A representative of the company in Los Angeles erred by stating that there were no fatalities in the crash, a fact that had to be quickly corrected. The release of information about the list of fatalities took longer than expected and led to additional distress among the families of the victims. Despite these issues, the company earned a great deal of respect due to the handling of this operation and managed to avoid the loss of its legitimacy and reputation.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are airline companies operating in Nigeria. A study of the emergency response tactics of one of the busiest Nigerian Airports revealed that no concrete emergency response plan was in place. This has resulted in a variety of issues in dealing with emergencies. From 1996 to 2013, a multitude of accidents occurred at the airport, with the number of fatalities totaling 779 people. Despite the extremely high number of casualties, the airport has not implemented an emergency response plan to date (Hassan 2015).

The reasons for the lack of preparedness are numerous, but the main ones are related to the shortage of workforce and equipment to combat air accidents. The Nigerian aviation industry does not comply with the standards of emergency management outlined by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Previous research indicated that accidents at the airport occurred due to a vast variety of reasons. These included air traffic control errors, bird strikes, cargo-hold, and cabin fires, design flaws, fuel starvation, hijacking, poor lighting, pilot incapacitation, pilots being shot by passengers, sabotage, pilot error, and poor weather. The frequency and severity of these situations suggest a great need for an emergency plan that will, at the very least, deal with common issues like air traffic control errors and poor weather. While no specific Nigerian airline was mentioned in the study, it is clear that their reputation has been greatly affected by inadequate responses to these occurrences (Hassan 2015).

Crashed Boeing MD-83 in Nigeria.
Fig. 2: Crashed Boeing MD-83 in Nigeria (Tilley-Gyado 2012).

The report points out that a passenger has certain expectations of airlines that include safety and the presence of contingency plans if a crisis occurs. These expectations govern the standards provided by the ICAO. An examination of the Nigerian aviation industry has shown that these standards and guidelines are not being met. This could explain the 19 aircraft accidents that occurred in Nigeria from 2000 to 2006. The examination revealed, for example, that less than 30% of recommended emergency response equipment was available at the busiest airport in the country. These events have greatly undermined people’s belief in Nigerian airline safety and immensely hurt its reputation. Also, the frequency of accidents has caused multiple protests that indicate the lack of legitimacy held by Nigerian airlines (Hassan 2015).

Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of impact on reputation is the emergency response of British Airways to the crash of a Boeing 777 at Heathrow Airport. The crash occurred at 12:42 on January 17th, 2008. No casualties occurred among the 152 people who were on board the plane. The crash was the result of product failure and was ruled an accident. The initial emergency procedures of British Airways were deployed swiftly and successfully.

Due to the efforts of the cabin crew, everyone evacuated from the plane within 90 seconds of the accident. However, the management of British Airways was unable to provide a press release before news reports began covering the event. The emergency team had less than 20 minutes from the time of the incident to the first breaking news report that was made by BBC News 24 at 13:06. The crisis team was assembled at 13:04 and soon provided a statement to the media (Grundy & Moxon 2013).

The statement included information about the specific flight details in an accurate, structured, and consistent manner. The timeliness of the statement suggested that it was pre-drafted, which is a sign of the presence of an emergency response plan. In a later statement from the CEO of British Airways, Willie Walsh, the crew and emergency teams were praised for their coordinated and prompt response to the crisis. During the crisis, Walsh took the responsibility of being the spokesperson for the company (Grundy & Moxon 2013).

The main strategy employed by the company during the initial crisis response was focused on portraying the incident in a positive light. The training that prevented the incident from taking lives was emphasized. Additionally, the company constantly updated the press with new information about the incident as it became available. The media exposure of the accident was extensive as it was a very rare occurrence for British Airlines. Before the accident, the company had enjoyed a solid safety record for more than 30 years. The coverage of the story was mostly positive, however, and focused on the fact that disaster was averted and the incident caused no casualties (Grundy & Moxon 2013).

The following day, a press conference was held by British Airways to address various questions about the incident. During the conference, the captain of the airplane was selected to be the face of the company and was greatly praised for his actions during the incident. The analysis of the company’s reputation during and after the incident reveals that initially negative responses had a noticeable negative effect. However, as information about the crew performance during the event spread through media channels, it slightly outweighed the initial negative responses. Overall, the company suffered a slight reduction in reputation but not large enough to have a significant effect on its legitimacy (Grundy & Moxon 2013).

Conclusion

The impact of a thoroughly prepared emergency response plan on a company’s reputation and legitimacy can be extensive. Emergency response plans allow the company to seamlessly transition into a state of crisis management. Legitimacy and reputation are very important for airline companies; thus, to maintain them, emergency response plans can be introduced. The cases examined in this paper suggest that utilizing such a plan during a crisis can prevent negative publicity for the airline and even improve its reputation if the actions touch on all the important factors, which include care for the victims of the accident, putting a face to the company and swift action before the media creates its version of the story.

The lack of a plan can lead to not only a poor reputation but also a drastic increase in the number of casualties from accidents. Unfortunately, many airlines do not have such plans because it increases the chances that lives may be lost due to inefficient emergency responses during crises.

Reference List

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Vlachos, I & Lin, Z 2014, ‘Drivers of airline loyalty: evidence from the business travelers in China’. Transportation Research Part E: Logistics and Transportation Review, vol. 71, pp. 1-17. Web.

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