Airlines' Protocol for After a Plane Crash

About once every three days somewhere in the world a large commercial airliner crashes.
Most of them are not extremely catastrophic because most of them are without death. Of the 1,070 accidents recorded during the decade of the 2010s, only 112 were fatal. Even among these, the vast majority of passengers survive an average fatal accident. In fact, half of all plane crash fatalities over the past decade were due to just twelve incidents. That is, most fatal plane crashes are not the kind you see in the movies - the kind where there are few or no survivors.

Most are more minor incidents with only one or two or a few other unlucky victims. 

The industry, however, does not see them that way. The truth is, people fear planes in an irrational way, so for air travel to be as common as it is, they need a much higher level of safety than any other form of transportation. Safety and cost efficiency go hand in hand for airlines. Despite this, however, crashes are indeed inevitable for one of the biggest airlines. Statistically, some of these larger airlines are also some of the safest, but none are 100% secure. Therefore, with enough theft, an accident will happen.

Photo by Grant Ritchie on Unsplash



 The ten largest airlines in the world have had fatal crashes in their history and therefore, with this level of inevitability, airlines must have a strictly defined plan for what to do after one of their crashes. planes. So let's say an accident happens. It will definitely have something to do with landing or taking off. The vast majority of accidents involve the runway, however, if an accident is fatal it is much more likely to be related to a loss of in-flight control or a controlled collision in the terrain. Runway accidents account for over ninety percent of accidents, but only twenty-five percent of fatal accidents. The airline is never really the first responder in the event of an accident.

Usually it's firefighters and other emergency personnel, but as soon as news of an accident reaches them, the airline will begin to mobilize. Almost all airlines will have what is called a "starter team". This is a group of people, usually working at airline headquarters, who train to be part of the crisis response function in addition to their regular job. With large airlines, this team can be made up of several hundred individuals performing a wide variety of functions. Large, long-haul airlines may also have smaller teams made up of people working at their remote stations who can get to crash sites faster while the main team moves from a seat. 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 departure crew assembles and departed from the headquarters airport. Usually, a crew and an emergency plane would be used for this dedicated flight. With them they would bring a starter kit. Considering that accidents can happen literally anywhere, this includes all kinds of things like satellite communication equipment, food, water, kitchen equipment, personal protective equipment, warm clothing. , tents, generators, tools, etc. The staff of the team is generally divided into three main areas: crisis assistance, humanitarian assistance and communications.

Each of these would likely be split into a front team and a back team. 

If the crash happened in a remote location, for example, the forward team, including the most essential members of each of the larger teams, would likely go to the crash site and establish a literal base camp. using the equipment in the kit. Meanwhile, the rear team could move to the nearest town with housing and facilities. On the site of the accident, a marshalling area was set up away from and near the wreckage of the aircraft. This can be done by some of the members of the crisis response team or by emergency personnel. There, individuals would be divided into three groups: deceased, injured and unharmed.

Those killed and injured would usually be looked after by firefighters, medics and other emergency personnel, while the airline's response team would likely attend to unharmed passengers. The rear team in the rear will have, in the meantime, set up a reception center for survivors - usually at a nearby hotel - and organized transport to this site. The most important group of the operations team is usually the Humanitarian Assistance Team, which is made up of volunteers from airline customer service staff - flight attendants, airport attendants and others. By grouping passengers together in a single facility, the airline separates them from the media and centralizes them for investigative interviews and support functions.

The surviving aircraft crew will usually be treated by a different crew who would take them to a different facility than the passengers - which is recommended for 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 origin or destination of the flight, where large groups of friends and family could be found. Those in attendance would be updated as a group and then sorted so that friends and family of survivors were brought to an area to reunite, while others could be notified of a member's death. their family or a friend.

The role of these family assistance centers is amplified in the event of accidents where there is a significant and long-lasting search and rescue operation, as is often the case with accidents in the ocean. In the case of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, for example, the Family Support Centers operated for two months. Passenger and family assistance centers may need to house hundreds and thousands of people respectively, so their configuration and functions are likely defined before any accident occurs.

Airlines will decide, for example, that they need a general lounge, a denominational zone, a psychological assistance zone, a press zone, a telephone and Internet space, and more and more in advance, then it's just a matter of deciding which area goes where once. a location for the installation is identified. With this and all the other response efforts, actions are proceduralized so that every team member knows what to do, even in a rapidly changing chaotic scenario. Away from the crash site, airlines will set up a crisis command center in their headquarters, comprising 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 the overall communication effort, because more than anything else, the best thing an airline can do for itself after an accident is probably to communicate. This is why the third main aspect of a referral team, beyond crises and humanitarian responses, concerns communications. After one of their aircraft crashes, an airline is concerned about the continuity of its business - it is concerned about how it will come out on the other end of the incident - so its communications must be strategic. Crisis communications are a subset of public relations aimed at minimizing damage to reputation after an incident in a business.

As part of this, airlines want to be sure that, to the extent possible, they are able to control the narrative. 

This means they have to communicate quickly and loudly to muffle any other noise. Thus, they put the members of the communications team on site to be able to disseminate accurate information as quickly as possible to the media, survivors, family and friends. However, there will also be a team at airline headquarters that will need to make more methodical and strategic communication decisions. Now, at the end of the day, there are two main options for responding to an incident: accept blame or defer blame.

Academic research on the issue shows that taking responsibility early generally leads to better public response and in fact tends to reduce the size of settlements that end up getting paid, however, the risk one runs is that in accepting responsibility, this can open a business up to legal consequences. Therefore, despite the overwhelming evidence that this is not a prudent decision, organizations will often defer their responsibility until they are absolutely certain it is their fault. While it is absolutely certain that an accident is not the fault of the airline, as in the case of aircraft manufacturing defects, deferring the blame can actually change the public's sentiment to make the company. air a victim himself, but the evidence for such cases is usually only conclusive after years of investigation, so immediately after the accident, it may appear to the public to escape all responsibility.

Therefore, deciding whether to take or reject liability is quite a difficult choice for airlines. One of the recent crisis communications case studies involves Southwest Airlines Flight 1308 in 2018. Shortly after reaching the cruise after departing from LaGuardia Airport, his left engine failed and fragments were projected into the fuselage of the aircraft. With that, a window was shattered and, due to the rapid decompression and rapidly moving debris, the passenger sitting next to that window died of her injuries. The plane ended up landing safely and there were only minor injuries among the other passengers, but for the southwest it was a major crisis. It was the first fatal plane crash in the United States since 2009, and their very first.

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 personal statements which, combined with their previous positive reputation, managed to persuade the public that they were truly sorry. The company also suspended all marketing for a month to let the sensitive situation fade into public discourse, so in total, this incident and its response cost them around $ 100 million. Ultimately, once the investigation was completed, it was determined that it was probably not Southwest's fault.

 The accident was caused by a tiny, largely invisible fatigue fracture on one of the engine's fan blades. Southwest followed all of the 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 has gone for the expensive but effective crisis communication method. If they had deferred the blame they might have been able to lose less money, but if in the end it was found out that they needed to be blamed, it could cause significant damage to their reputation.

In the immediate response to a plane crash, the airline and victim incentives are often aligned because the public responds positively to the positive treatment of victims. It is later, however, that the incentives become more and more divided - victims often seek compensation, airlines seek to minimize their financial liability. At that point, the public is no longer interested in a plane crash. Accidents are interesting when there is a pile of burning debris, not when a group of lawyers are sitting in a courtroom. So this is exactly why the airlines have spent a huge and disproportionate amount of planning, money and effort in the response phase with the pile of debris on fire. This is the most efficient use of these resources and, ultimately, for airlines, plane crashes are a financial problem.

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