November 3, 2011

Doesn't  anyone have a plan?

Airlines' image flying low

John Glenn

Enterprise Risk Management Practitioner

British Airways

JetBlue and American Airlines

Qantas

Two "flag" airlines and two US flag  carriers.

All four have two things in common.

They are non-government corporations.

Their reputations were severely damaged when their passengers were inconvenienced beyond the norm.

Qantas

Qantas, Australia's best-known international airline (http://www.qantas.com.au/travel/airlines/home/au/en) apparently was facing a strike.

Aware of a threatened strike, management under the leadership of CEO Alan Joyce,  grounded all flights.

Grounding flights is, in itself, not all that unusual. Qantas earlier grounded its fleet of six Airbus A380s after problems with the Rolls-Royce engines were discovered.

What IS unusual is the fact that Qantas failed to assure its passengers, the reason for existence, would be able to travel on other airlines.

If the video on the Sydney (Aus) Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/the-qantas-brand-is-headed-for-the-hangar-20111101-1mt8p.html)  is at all accurate, the failure is made worse by union mini-strikes preceding the shutdown by several weeks.

Why the unions were acting and threatening more actions is irrelevant.

Knowing that the unions could shut down the airline should have come as no surprise to anyone. Management should have a plan to keep its customers in the air even if the airline is on the ground.

That same plan could have been implemented when management decided to ground the airline.

The question to ask is "Did Qantas have a business continuity plan and did the plan include provisions to serve customers in the event planes were grounded?" A follow-up question would be, "If not, why not?"

Paul Harrison, a senior lecturer in marketing at Deakin University's Graduate School of Business in Victoria, contends that "To think that its passengers will understand the complexities of negotiations with unions, take its side, and return to it when it is all over, is naïve in the extreme."

His opinion is supported by many people commenting on the article. Many, it seems, already had a lessened opinion of the airline, especially when compared to Virgin, its main competition on international routes.

JetBlue & American

Both JetBlue and American kept passengers waiting on a snowy tarmac at Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Conn. for 7 or more hours (some claimed 10 hours trapped inside a tube).

According to an Associated Press (AP) story in the Washington  Post on October 3 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/travel/jetblue-american-airlines-planes-stranded-on-tarmac-in-connecticut-for-more-than-7-hours/2011/10/31/gIQA3Ri3YM_story.html) , when passengers finally deplaned they only had cots and chairs on which they could try to sleep.

JetBlue spokeswoman Victoria Lucia told the AP that one of the reasons passengers were stuck for an extended period on the planes was due to "intermittent power outages at the airport (that) made refueling and deplaning difficult."

Ed Martelle, an American Airlines spokesperson, told AP that passengers on its flight from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris were prevented from getting off the plane by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol orders.

The airport's Customs office is open only from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the only scheduled international flights are a few from Canada; Customs probably would be unable to handle a jumbo jet's capacity of travelers. On the other hand, had the airport's business continuity plan considered  a jumbo-jet load of people, it might have been able to set aside an area where travelers could wait in isolation until re-boarding their flights to the original U.S. port of entry.

Passengers were told a series of differing stories about why they were trapped onboard.

It's unclear how the passengers deplaned, but it is clear that the delay in leaving the planes was excessively long.

As with Qantas, there are questions to be asked.

The first question to ask both JetBlue and American is: "Do you have business continuity plans and do the plans include scenarios where passengers are prevented from leaving the aircraft?"  The obvious next question is "If not, why not?"

Apparently most of the planes were bound for New York area airports and those airports were closed due to weather.

The weather on the ground in Hartford was hardly any better.

So let's make an assumption, to wit: no airplanes were departing Hartford for New York airports. Those at the gates stayed at the gates.

What could have been done?

Planes at the gates could have been pushed back using pusher trucks and a couple of people to help guide it; park these craft in any available area. Once the gate is free, move in one of the diverted aircraft.

If that is not possible - perhaps Hartford lacks facilities to accommodate a trans-oceanic jet - then mobile stairs could have been brought to the planes and passengers taken to the terminal in buses. Not enough airline-owned buses? How about "renting" some from the rental car companies or the airport's shuttle service?

Bottom line, except for the Customs and Border Patrol problem. it appears that

(a) The airlines lacked a business continuity plan that included the threat of passengers being stranded on the tarmac  - despite knowing that huge federal fines could be levied for each passenger

(b)  No one took the initiative to do whatever necessary (move planes, bring stairs and buses) to off-load the passengers

(c) The airport management lacked sufficient generators to counter the intermittent power outages

To its credit, the airport was able to find some cots and it apparently had sufficient food; hopefully the airlines issued vouchers or otherwise paid for the passengers' sustenance. It is hard to believe that it was impossible for the airlines - or airport management - to contact local lodging and to provide transportation to - and later from - the lodgings for the passengers and crews.

British Air

British Airways, BA, remains the "example par excellence" of a company that, if it has a business continuity plan, thinks only in terms of recovery.

BA is a "pretty good airline" according to a frequent BA passenger. She has been fortunate to avoid all the BA "incidents" and, like BA itself, she closes her eyes to potential events.

BAs clam to shame dates back to August 2005 when employees at its apparently only caterer at London's Heathrow (LHR) airport walked.

The strike was anticipated; the union and caterer had been in bitter discussions; when the company fired 650 employees, the union called a work action.

Strikes should be no surprise to BA.

According to The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/4307627), "In the summer of 2003, check-in staff struck over work changes. In August 2004 came a strike over pay."

Albeit illegal, the caterer strike "triggered a one-day (illegal) sympathy strike by 1,000 BA ground staff, causing chaos for passengers, some 70,000 of whom were stranded."

From here it's all downhill.

Unlike the old Ma Bell in the U.S., AT&T, BA managers apparently are able only to manage. AT&T managers, by contrast, usually came up through the ranks and were able to fill in for strikers to assure that customers had at least a minimum level of service.

And unlike Bradley International in Hartford, Heathrow kiosks and restaurants ran out of food. BA did offer chits to use at the food vendors, but with no food to purchase, the chits were wasted paper.

The first question to ask BA management: "Do you have business continuity plans and do the plans include scenarios where aircraft are grounded (for any reason)?"

The obvious next question is "If not, why not?"

The most glaring problem lies with management that chose to ignore the threat of a strike at the company's sole caterer at Heathrow.

(A BA business continuity professional later told me there was "nothing" anyone could have done to prevent the fiasco. This seems the mentality of many, but certainly not all, practitioners in England.)

BA could have lined up an alternate caterer for Heathrow as a matter of due diligence. Failing that, it could have flown in meals from other airports, both in the UK and from international sites. There are some excellent airline meals prepared in Holland; Schiphol is a relatively short flight from London.

BA managers could have handled luggage, even if they did it badly and bags were left behind. (I realize that how things are stowed may effect the aircraft's operation.) Passengers are accustomed to "delayed" delivery of their luggage, but they still want to arrive at their destinations on time.

BA should have been prepared to move its passengers to other airlines serving Heathrow.  A recent check at iFly.com (http://www.ifly.com/london-heathrow-airport/airlines-served) showed at least 50 international airlines doing business at this airport. Even if the passengers' luggage remained in London, they would have at least reached their destinations, late, perhaps, but none the less.

Finally, security for an unnamed US airline

This time the question really is not "Do you have a business continuity plan that includes security" but "Do you consider all reasonable security risks?"

In the case of the unnamed US airline, the answer is "No."

Shortly after 9-11-2001  I cobbled together an article suggesting that for all its best efforts, TSA and airport police were ill-prepared to prevent weapons from going on board aircraft.

I laid out then several ways weapons - from box cutters to guns - could be brought on board and hidden in a pre-arranged location so that a TSA-cleared passenger could find and use it.

I also explained how this threat could be eliminated.

The newspaper or magazine to which I submitted the article asked the airline's Security Chief to vet it. He told the editors that what I wrote was not possible.

He was proven wrong.

Was the business continuity risk the weapons?

No.

The business continuity risk was the Security Chief who refused to see the obvious.

© 2011, John Glenn