Work Hard Fly **** Failure in Crisis Management

Travelling home to New Jersey from California over the Christmas 2010 holiday, I and thousands of other travelers experienced a total failure by Continental Airlines management to lead in an obvious national crisis.   Like many others, my return home was delayed almost a week.  With over 4,000 passenger flights cancelled in the US alone due to weather and related events, there was no question that this was a crisis without a simple solution.  The absence of any leadership by Continental, however,  mocked and undermined its advertising slogan “Work Hard, Fly Right”®.

What occurred was an abdication of responsibility for the care, comfort and perhaps even safety of its customers. For starters, many flyers did not know their flights were cancelled after printing their online boarding passes. That signaled the start of interminable waits at airports or in planes sitting on runways.

Those of us made aware of a flight cancellation before heading to the airport suffered an odyssey of three-hour waits on Continental’s telephone reservation system without ever reaching an agent, hours more online trying to book flights only to receive a “transaction could not be completed” message at the end of the booking process, and even more hours at airports trying to rebook.  In brief, there were failures on Continental’s part both to communicate and to act.

While Continental could not fly its planes into the New York area, a banner could have been posted on its website that flights could not be booked due to overwhelmed logistics.  Management could have reassigned staff or contracted temporary staff to handle calls, or at a minimum, added a detailed message to the airline’s automated telephone attendant system that calls could not be handled for hours.  Both on and off-line, management could have set realistic expectations for passengers and offered suggestions of the best means for re-booking as well as a check list of steps to take to get through the travel mess.

Finally, additional employees could have been brought into airports to help stranded passengers re-route flights.  At a minimum, a portion of airline staff could have been allocated to handle stranded passengers while others attended to passengers with active flights; clear signs could have been posted to identify which lines were for current passengers and which were for stranded ones.  In our case, all employees were left without guidance so that they all handled active travelers, and no appropriate signage was displayed, resulting in added delays, confusion, frustration and alienation from the Continental brand.

Here’s a suggested short list for a company’s crisis management:

  1. When in doubt, do something; lead.
  2. Focus on customers.
  3. Communicate – give guidance and frame expectations about solutions.

In his October 1, 2010 letter to customers announcing the merger of Continental with United Airlines, Jeff Smisek, President and Chief Executive Officer of United Airlines, wrote, “As a loyal Continental customer, you might be wondering what this [merger] means for you. For now, it’s business as usual.”  With respect to  future crises, let’s hope he’s wrong.

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