The Asiana Airlines Crash – The Power of Partnerships

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Partnerships are Powerful

By Ann SanCartier, Firestorm Expert Council member and Airlines Crisis Management Expert
King Solomon, known as one of the wisest men to have ever lived, recorded an ancient principle that states, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” Simple, but empowering.

Asiana Update conferenceUnited Airlines, Asiana Airlines, and the Star Alliance understood and proved this old, yet relevant word of advice to the world this week.

Even the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has publicly recognized the compassionate rapid response that United Airlines provided Asiana Airlines, and how they continue to support the recovery efforts. This type of successful, timely reaction didn’t occur in July; this partnership occurred months and years prior. United’s “Johnny-on-the-Spot” response occurred because of their commitment to Preaction. Communicating, planning, training – and don’t forget exercising – with key players is what can get you ahead of the power curve during a tragedy or crisis. 

The Two Key Elements of an Airline Disaster Response

We may not know the complete facts of this week’s tragic accident and how this may unfold, but we can expect how the two key elements, the investigation and family assistance, will. For every commercial aviation accident that takes place in the United States, there are specific response plans that are required by law for each, and both rely on partnerships to be successful.

asiana spokespersonThe Investigation 

The causal factors of this accident will take months, even years, to uncover; however the United States draws on its namesake by allowing several agencies, organizations and experts to unite with them in this daunting effort.  Called the “Party System”, the NTSB partners with knowledgeable experts from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the operating airline, the unions, and/or the aircraft manufacturer and others as needed to discover how to improve safety and hopefully avoid the same mistakes.

What is the result of this regulated partnership approach? Aviation safety has improved significantly and steadily. (See www.ntsb.gov and www.aviation-safety.net for statistical data.) Every accident is a tragedy and each life affected by them is significant, but there is hope in seeing that the process of partnership and commitment to safety is working.

Family Assistance

Although the NTSB investigation processes were implemented in 1967, the friends, families and survivors affected by early disasters were not provided with same attentiveness. The lack of a compassionate plan caused unintentional harm to those already hurting in the aftermath. It was through an unofficial network of families, friends and survivors – those that spoke up and were heard on Capitol Hill – that a family assistance plan was standardized in 1996 with the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act. About a year later, the Foreign Air Carrier Act was also passed which requires the same for international commercial airlines entering U.S airspace.

This powerful piece of legislation requires airlines to provide compassionate, practical assistance to those directly affected by the tragedy and to partner with others agencies to meet the needs of the survivors and loved ones.  Any organization can learn from this vetted, tried and true plan and implement its guidelines when assisting those affected by a disaster. Some of the victim support tasks include providing a publicized toll-free number for friends and families; providing information to loved ones as it becomes known and before giving it to the media; establishing a Family Assistance Center with resources and information; and providing logistical support like transportation, food, and lodging for the families.

Once again, partnership receives the credit for why this plan has gone global. As it was being developed, Congress created a Task Force which included survivors, friends and families, airlines, non-profit care organizations, and others to work together to design the guidelines. You have probably seen their recommendations in action this week in response to the Asiana accident.

Never Plan in a Vacuum

When I was a rookie emergency manager, the best decision I ever made was to build relationships with expert partners who had been taught and tested from lessons learned. I call it the value of avoiding the vacuum. Since it isn’t likely that a response will be handled alone, then why would we prepare for one alone? It is not “my” plan but “our” plan. It can only succeed as a team. One of the reasons I am doing what I do today is because I learned so much from the consultants I hired and from others that mentored me. I discovered their value added value to me and to our response. If knowledge is power (and not one of us can know it all); then why not take the initiative to form partnerships now with industry peers, crisis experts, and participating agencies?

Identify Your Partners

JP Morgan was the largest tenant in the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attacks. Out of 3,700 employees, how many do you think survived? A hundred? Fifty? Actually, they had 3,694 survivors because they had a plan. When talking about that tragic day, Robert Scott, President and CEO at the time, told the Harvard Business School, “If you wait for a crisis to begin to lead, it’s too late.”

Begin to lead now. Identify your partners and prepare the plan, promote the plan, and practice the plan with them. Right now, right here, write down at least three partners. Here are a few questions to get you started.
•  Are there any regulating agencies that may be involved in responding to your crisis? How about the local fire and police departments?
•    City or county Emergency Management Office? When’s the last time you visited the city Emergency Operation Center (EOC) or offered to participate during a community response?
•    Local non-profit agencies like the Salvation Army or United Way?
•    Suppliers and vendors? Do you consider your vendors as partners?  You should, especially if you expect them to respond at 2:00 AM alongside you in the foxhole.
•    If you don’t have the subject matter expertise, find it and profit from the consultation of experience rather than being caught unaware and left in the reputational fallout of ignorance.  
•    Who are your next door neighbors? If either of you had to evacuate due to fire, could you reciprocate the offer to have a temporary place for employees to gather or be protected from the outside elements?
•    Who are your industry peers and colleagues? Do you attend conferences related to your industry or expertise? Do you belong to a trade organization? If not, sign up now or create one and gather the limitless expertise into one room and discuss how you can support each other during a crisis. United and Asiana did.

When you identify your partners, you identify value that complements that in your own organization.

As Kendra St. Charles, a member of that infamous Family Assistance Task Force and survivor of a plane crash, so powerfully, but simply, stated in 1996, “Together…we can do the right thing.”

Firestorm would be honored to work together with you to help your organization do the right thing when the worst occurs.  Every Crisis is a Human Crisis.


asancartier2Ann SanCartier is a Firestorm Expert Council member and the founder of The Crisis Compass which provides crisis management consultation, training, plan development and response support. Ann has unique expertise and experience on managing the human side of a crisis with organizational excellence and compassion.

Previously a crisis manager for a major international airline, she developed and executed emergency response plans for aviation accidents, mass casualties, operational continuity plans and man-made and natural disasters. Her experience includes responses to aircraft accidents and incidents, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados and operational disruptions. She is a national speaker on crisis management, family assistance and grief and loss support.

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