Posts Tagged ‘Aviation Disaster Family Assistance’

“Good Enough” Isn’t Good Enough

October 31st, 2012 2 comments

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.

Nothing New?

August 24th, 2012 Comments off

“There’s really nothing new in family assistance; it’s just variations on the same stuff.” That’s what a friend recently told me. On one level, perhaps that’s true. But on another level, I couldn’t disagree more.

Let me share an example – an illustration from an accident that occurred in the 1990s.

A large passenger aircraft crashed on landing in the middle of the night in bone-drenching rain. The fuselage broke apart; portions were engulfed in fire. There were some fatalities, but most passengers escaped and survived. Naturally, many of their belongings were destroyed. One little girl lost her favorite stuffed toy. She was broken-hearted.  At a time when she needed to feel safe and reassured, that special object she used for comfort was impossible to recover.

The airline’s special assistance team learned about the little girl’s loss. The toy itself could not be repaired. But they jumped into action and found out more about it. They learned where it was purchased. They contacted the seller, who didn’t have any others like it, but could tell them where it was made. They called the manufacturer. They found an identical toy. And they got it as quickly as they could and delivered it to the little girl. Whether she believed it was her original toy or a replacement didn’t matter; she was delighted, and she was comforted.

Could something like that be included in a manual or a checklist: “Determine whether a child’s toy is damaged, and if so, conduct an extensive search to find a replacement”? Of course not! The checklists would be constantly growing, always incomplete, and totally useless. The ”variations” my friend talked about can’t be captured in checklists. But they are the very essence of an effective and compassionate response.

So is there anything new in family assistance? You might as well say there is nothing new in home-building; it’s just variations on the same stuff. On one level it’s true: every home will have a foundation, walls, roof, doors, windows. But the variations will distinguish each house. In the same way, variations in family assistance distinguish each response. The variations are where the opportunities are – the opportunities to make the difference to every individual we assist.

Every accident has an infinite number of variables. Handling them well requires keen observation, careful listening, and caring responsiveness. It also requires clear organizational priorities and a genuine concern for passenger and family welfare. There is always something new in family assistance. And that is precisely what makes all the difference.