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The biggest elephant in the room every time the company plane runs late- or tackles foul weather- is the most-unthinkable thought of all: “What if something’s happened?” There’s no point in beating around the bush about it – family members fret- co-workers commiserate and colleagues get concerned for those of us who travel- for work or play… and when we go by air- well- we’ve all read those stories. Why worry though- when we know in ...

Dave Higdon   |   1st February 2007
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Coping With Disaster

Smart operators prepare in advance.

The biggest elephant in the room every time the company plane runs late- or tackles foul weather- is the most-unthinkable thought of all: “What if something’s happened?” There’s no point in beating around the bush about it – family members fret- co-workers commiserate and colleagues get concerned for those of us who travel- for work or play… and when we go by air- well- we’ve all read those stories. Why worry though- when we know in the abstract that air travel is by far the safest way to go – in particular business aircraft- individual general aviation travel and airline carriage? All have tremendous records for safety.

We worry because we’ve all read ‘those’ stories; because we all know that not all flights go right all the time. We know stuff happens – and we’re human enough to fear it could happen to us- to our kin- to our colleagues. Things will happen- to a handful- one year or another.

So the savvy key executive and sole breadwinner recognizes this potential by creating a will- by investing in life insurance and advanced- pre-need funeral plans; this same person’s employer may even have in place plans and contingencies for replacing the key executive in the case of death or incapacitation. So much is thought through for after the fact.

What about how the company deals with a crisis like a corporate aircraft crash in the here-and-now world of a disaster- though? Does the company have a disaster plan in place for dealing with the public- the media- investigators and regulators- friends and family- co-workers and customers- in the period immediately following the onset of crisis? Too often the answer is- “No-” or “Not adequately.”

The result of such cases is too often reflected by that lack of foresight and preparation in poor press- poorer public perceptions- and lackluster interaction with everyone from the bereaved to the investigators charged with learning what happened.

Fortunately- it doesn’t have to be that way. Companies large and small- with a single small plane or a fleet of business turboprop aircraft for sale- can avail themselves of information on what they will face and how to face it in the aftermath of tragedy. But preparation by definition requires a proactive approach to disaster preparedness.

While in general terms what follows is geared to the possibility of a company aircraft being involved in a crash- these steps also apply in the event of other disasters- such as a tragedy at a company facility- an incident involving company personnel who become victims of an act of terrorism or hostility- or after a natural disaster such as a flood- tornado- blizzard or hurricane.

So keep in mind the broader company picture when making your own disaster preparations. Disaster planning- by its nature- should cover the widest range of possibilities to which a company may be subjected.

Four steps- one common tool
Although different experts label the items differently- the basics of preparing for a disaster or tragedy come down to these: prevention- preparation- response and recovery. They could just as well be labeled ‘avoidance’- ‘planning’- ‘acting’ and ‘aftermath’- but the thrust is the same.

They hint at the different steps in the disaster chain – from before- to during- to the immediate aftermath and the long-term follow up. At each step of the process- a company will need to assess its particular situation and needs- decide the steps best for those circumstances- then move to formalize the steps into a structure- complete with people charged to act on certain elements of the plan should the unfortunate need ever arise. And these steps and mechanisms should be committed to a formal disaster preparedness document to which staff can refer for guidance should the need arise. Avoidance.

The first- and greatest effort should- and usually does go into avoiding/preventing any such tragedy. Avoidance techniques include routine aircraft maintenance above and beyond the minimal requirements- recurrent training for flight- cabin and maintenance crews- briefing passengers every flight on what to do in the event of a crisis- and exercising good judgment when time comes to make those tough “go or no-go” decisions in the face of pressure to just “go!”

Prevention planning also means setting standards for operational flight planning decisions that take some of the pressure off the crew to veto a flight against the boss’ instincts – minimal weather- rest and duty rules specific to the company- for example- aren’t generally required for FAR 91 operations- save for those sometimes-scary weather minima that few pilots truly enjoy challenging. Think of these guidelines as personal minima for the company – adherence to which can all but guarantee no ill will befall anyone on the company airplane.

These avoidance techniques can also apply to the personal security of company personnel when traveling on company business- the security of company facilities and guarding against the possibility of industrial disaster.

Finally- avoidance should also include periodic review of the avoidance steps for the need to change as equipment and personnel changes. What covers a basic one-plane flight department may need to change when the company adds another aircraft or upgrades the capabilities of existing equipment.

Flight Planning
This is where things begin to get more complex- oriented toward steps taken should the worst actually happen.

Some of the steps are simple and common sense- such as: making a list of key people to contact in the event of a tragedy; appointing someone to co-ordinate company actions after the event; designating someone to act as public spokesperson; planning for dealing with the always-present media people who’ll likely show up at your company door; and preparing to deal with investigators from the FAA- the NTSB and local law enforcement; and rolling this all into a plan of action that will go into effect upon word of a disaster.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) inquiries always include disparate “parties” to the investigation – representatives from the airframe- aircraft engine suppliers and aircraft avionics suppliers- from the flight department- from the FAA. Someone from the company must be tasked with serving as the company’s representative to the official investigation- and that person needs to have access to the information that will be required by the investigators.

Such advance preparation won’t erase the emotional devastation that accompanies a tragedy among co-workers. But it will give the company a structure and plan to follow so that the right people can be taking the correct steps – despite those emotions. For example- using this step to gather a list of phone numbers of local reporters or editors and their fax numbers can go a long way toward establishing communications with the hometown media- which is always going to cover a disaster that befalls a local company.

The company may want to establish a special website for posting updates regarding the incident and release that site’s address after posting the first pieces of information. Likewise- a special toll-free number for families of victims can also be a useful tool for direct communications with those most affected by the tragedy.

You’ve just learned the company jet is long overdue and missing- the boss has activated the disaster plan – time to put that plan to work; the designated disaster coordinator calls the salient people on the list- the spokesperson contacts the media to tell them when the company will have a statement- the staff works on the statement- and so the response begins.

Somewhere the person designated to do so is collecting all the relevant records that will be sought by the investigators – aircraft information- maintenance history- crew information about training- medical certification – the works.

The reason the planning process should designate different individuals to handle different aspects of the emergency becomes clearest here as phones ring off their hooks with calls from employees- family members- reporters and investigators. It’s all too much for one person – or maybe even three people.

So the person coordinating the response doesn’t also have to be the media spokesman; the person in charge of notifying affected family members shouldn’t be the person in charge of the response – but should be someone with authority to answer those family members’ questions- arrange to transport them to the right location- and cover briefing them in person.

Likewise- the person charged with coordinating with the investigating agencies should have the authority to gather the needed information without any internal bureaucratic obstacles.

The statement should- first and foremost- express the natural grief felt for the victims and their families and attest to the company’s overriding intentions to help the families cope with the aftermath- the company’s intention to cooperate fully with investigators- and setting a time for the next briefing.

Speculation into what happened- statements of fault or blame- or anything unsupportable by irrefutable facts should be studiously avoided. “We won’t speculate on what/how this happened-” may get tiresome in its repetition; it may sound like a cop-out- but it’s the smartest response to a situation of which you’re only beginning to learn the facts yourself.

At some point the company and the people involved need to get back to a normal life- to a familiar routine as close as possible to the drill in place before the tragedy. This is the recovery phase when things aren’t over – but they’re starting to quieten down. Media updates can be set for when there’s new information to share rather than on the frequency used in the response phase; staff designated to handle specific aspects of the crisis can start returning to their normal responsibilities. And if it is an air crash- the process can slowly move into a standby phase awaiting the outcome of the official investigation – usually from the NTSB.

There will be opportunities to address the tragedy between the initial field investigation and the rendering of a “Probable Cause Finding” by the safety board. For example- shortly after the accident the board will publish a short factual report citing the aircraft type- registration number- phase of flight- flight conditions- number of people killed or hurt and the degree of damage to the aircraft. It’s a bare-bones statement- but the company needs to be ready to address its contents.

After the field investigation- the board will release its preliminary report – in essence- a narrative report outlining in great detail what happened- where and to what and whom - but not why. ‘Why’ comes last- in the probable cause finding.

At each step in the recovery process- the company has an opportunity to talk about what it’s doing – or has done/is even better – to prevent a repeat of this tragedy. It isn’t fast and it isn’t always pretty. But sometime between a year and 18 months after the fact- the NTSB will issue its findings- make recommendations on preventing another such incident and close its books on the accident.

That may be how long it takes the company to move completely beyond the event – or it may be even longer- depending on whether any lawsuits are pending arising out of the tragedy and the company’s role in any such suits… such as a defendant.

Along the way… assessments
Before closing the books on any such tragedy- it’s a smart company that assesses the effectiveness of its disaster preparedness plan and works on improving on what worked. Although the odds of history repeating itself with any single company are even smaller than the odds of an aircraft crash- the experience of dealing with such a tragedy can go a long way toward informing the company on how well it is prepared to handle any other crisis that might come along.

Anybody involved in helping with the first will know how much help it was to have a plan- a structure- and people ready to take on these extraordinary chores. And knowing the importance of disaster preparedness in the aftermath of an air crash can only help the company be prepared for any other tragedy life might throw its way.

Several companies offer workshops- seminars and consulting services to help prepare corporations for the possibility of a tragedy such as an air crash.
The NBAA also offers advice and expertise on the fundamentals (www.nbaa.org). In addition- for your convenience- we’ve listed a few other companies below- along with their contact info. 
ASI Group: www.airsecurity.com 
The Communications Workshop LLC: www.thecommunicationsworkshop.com 
Kenyon International Emergency Services: www.kenyoninternational.com 
Risk Management Advisors- Inc: www.rma-global.com 
The VanAllen Group- Inc: www.vanallen.com


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