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“Good Enough” Isn’t Good Enough

October 31st, 2012

Last week I talked to a man who lost his 30-year-old daughter in a commercial airline accident. He told me about trying to reach the airline in the initial hours after the crash. He got through to someone on the toll-free number; they said they’d call him back with further information. He waited two hours.  Nothing. He called again, and again they said they’d call him back. He waited another two hours. Nothing. It was over four hours before anyone at the airline could confirm what he already knew: his daughter had been on board.

But, he said, it got worse. He called the airline again to make flight arrangements to go to the accident city. He was given the option of a 12-hour wait. When he asked for an earlier departure, the call center agent advised that he could purchase a ticket on another airline. He asked again, and the impatient agent finally came back with another alternative:  the same itinerary and aircraft type on which his daughter had just been killed. When he pointed out that fact to the agent, she told him “Sir, you’re the one who wanted the earlier flight.”

This wasn’t the 1980s. This was within the past five years, and it happened in a country that has an aviation disaster family assistance law. It happened to a carrier that has a strong emergency response program and that is generally believed to have handled the humanitarian aspects of the accident very well.

When I told a colleague about the conversation she replied that there will always be “one-offs” – the occasional bad exception to an otherwise good response. She’s right, of course. And a well-executed response shouldn’t be discounted on the basis of a few inevitable mistakes. But by the same token, the mistakes shouldn’t be discounted, either. The public judges based on the norm, but we learn from the exceptions.

In the realm of survivor and family assistance we can’t afford to shrug our shoulders at the occasional mistake. If we do, we’re disregarding the profound human impact that our errors can have and we’re squandering an opportunity to do things a little bit better. From an emergency planning perspective, dismissing the “one-offs” smacks of complacency. We need to find the failures, study them, and fix them. Whether it’s a drill or a case study, if something went wrong we need to understand why it went wrong. If we don’t, this time’s “one-off” could become the next time’s new norm.

This man’s story has a lot to teach us. Are we notifying our own call centers, including foreign call centers, quickly enough? Can we commit to a call-back time, even if it’s four hours or more – and can we communicate that commitment to the caller and set clear expectations? Do we need more staff to answer and respond to calls? Can we fine-tune our coordination with codeshare partners, if they’re involved? Perhaps most importantly, have we defined and communicated our organizational priorities so that when faced with decisions (such as which flight to book), our employees will make choices that are responsive to the needs of families and survivors?

When it comes to emergency planning and response, “good enough” is not good enough. We won’t reach perfection, but we need to be relentless in pursuing incremental improvements. My colleague is right: there will always be “one-offs.” And they’re our best teachers.

  1. Marci Williams
    November 2nd, 2012 at 03:54 | #1

    Thank you for your comment about the “profound human impact” such errors can have. In the face of such a loss there is no room for anything less than compassion and practical support.
    This carries a life-lesson that reaches beyond the boundaries of professional response.

  2. Katie B
    November 6th, 2012 at 23:21 | #2

    Been meaning to respond to this. You’re right, the exceptions are what people seem to remember, whether or not the overall response was handled well.

    Also like your comment about the “profound human impact” that these types of errors can have, no matter how unintentional these errors are. I feel that the same is true of the opposite: there can be a profound human impact with the extra step, the extra kindness or compassion that professionals offer. In a time of grief, trauma or disaster, this can be such a comfort. And, to connect it back to you, this is where I feel you have an amazing strength, with these extra important steps of compassion. 

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