Airlines must have crisis plans, and JetBlue unfurled its today

Anyone who heard even partial accounts of what happened on a JetBlue flight from New York to Las Vegas yesterday had to rub uncomfortably against the horrible memories of 9/11 and United Airlines Flight 93.

The JetBlue flight detoured to Amarillo, TX because the pilot exhibited severe personal issues and passengers and crew had to subdue him. We all fly with fears imbedded 11 years ago.

If any company would have a crisis management plan ready to roll out an airline would. I once listened at a seminar to a very sharp crisis management team from Delta. The team responds for Delta Airlines like the Delta Force does for the U.S. Army.

For obvious reasons, airlines play a high-stakes game and despite all the studies that say flying is safer than driving, airlines have multiple reasons for careful preparation and familiarity with crisis management options and rules.

Thus it was not surprising to see Matt Lauer interviewing JetBlue CEO Dave Barger on the Today Show this morning. I doubt Today’s producers needed to call his office twice yesterday afternoon to invite him on.

How’d he do? Overall, quite well. Barger said all the right things, and he repeated the most important message he came armed with, three times. That’s something we teach. You can’t expect people to get it the first time, so you repeat the key message, at the risk of sounding a little slow, so people will get it. And a third time.

Barger’s message was, in effect, this was all about superior training and careful preparation, by the co-pilot, the plane’s crew and a knowledgeable and courageous set of passengers who subdued the disturbed pilot. Everyone was well-served.

Barger spoke calmly, earnestly and didn’t get defensive when Lauer asked a critical question. Kudos for that too.

And, Barger saved his ace in the hole for when the stakes were highest. He knew Lauer would ask about the pilot, and Barger was able to say that he had known him for years, would call him a friend and that no one had any indication of what was coming.

With that, toward the interview’s end, Barger immediately grabbed credibility with personal knowledge. He derived sympathy from what he said, that he and the pilot were not just CEO and employee. They were friends. Now we sympathized too. And that was the interview’s last impression.

This crisis is not over for JetBlue. It’s apparently an isolated incident, and Barger performed well in response.

But if it turns out that the pilot was fatigued or otherwise impaired — something Western New Yorkers are very familiar with following the 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, NY killing 50 — then JetBlue will take a bigger hit.

And if the airline is responsible, then what appeared mostly to be a problem among less-experienced, lower-paid, more stressed pilots of “commuter” airlines will apply to a major airline. Then it will become an FAA and Congressional hearings problem and Mr. Barger will get another chance to repeat his key message in front of microphones.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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