Whether you are an executive or a company, when a crisis occurs, how you react is critical and it is telling about who you are.
Fortunately, large scale crises do not happen that often, maybe once or twice in the life of a company or a leader. But that does not mean you needn’t bother having a plan for how you will respond. For a leader it can make the difference between a quick recovery or a major career setback. For a company, having a sound plan and executing it can ensure enhanced customer loyalty.
In the case of Delta Airlines, if they had a response plan for a major power outage at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, it was either poorly conceived or ineptly executed.
By now you have read all about it — around 12:55 PM on Sunday, a fire in an electrical vault in the lower level of one of the tunnels caused massive damage to the primary power panels as well as an adjacent room where the backup power switches were housed. The lunacy of having the back-up power located next to the main power panels is for others more knowledgeable than I to discuss. Today, I want to focus on Delta, the largest carrier at the airport. It is their home base of operations which makes their poor response all the more damning.
My flight from Dallas landed on schedule. I had plenty of time to make my connection. The power outage apparently occurred as my flight was landing. As we prepared to turn into the gate we stopped and there we stayed for more than five hours. Eventually we were moved from the C concourse to B where we parked at a gate where one of the very few air stairs was located. Our plane, a Boeing 717, did not have built-in back stairs like the MD-88 so we had to wait for our turn to deplane passengers down the roll up stairs. When we finally exited the plane, now in the dark with light rain coming down, we were directed to the stairs on the side of the jetway. That was the last time we had any direction from anyone from Delta. When we entered the darkened terminal there were hundreds of people milling around trying to decide whether they should leave the airport. Two Delta employees, one a woman who appeared to be a supervisor, was involved in a brief but noisy argument with a colleague about whether the Fire Marshall had issued an evacuation order. Some passengers were moving to the escalators to the train lobby on the lower level. These are among the longest escalators I have ever seen. Walking down with two heavy bags was awkward. Climbing up to the lobby at the other end was life threatening for all but the best in physical condition. Earlier we had seen buses take passengers from the C terminal to the main building, saving them from the hell of a long walk and a long climb, but if there were busses for passengers in the B concourse there was no one to tell us.
Once we got to the main lobby, again there was no Delta employee to provide any updates or directions. If you had a hotel you were lucky, especially if the hotel had a courtesy van because the line for cabs and Uber was endless. Earlier we learned from our pilot that there was limited communication between Delta personnel because of a lack of portable radios with battery power.
Several passengers commented that it was fortunate that most people retained their self-control. Things could have gotten out of hand in a hot hurry and the police presence was minimal in the areas I passed through.
When a group of people on the hotel bus were discussing how poorly Delta responded, a pilot was having none of it. “You can’t blame us. The FAA shut down the airport.” Au contraire, my Captain. Oh where to begin?
Certainly the criticism cannot be dumped on the pilots and air crews. When they got inside the terminal, they were just as “on their own” as the rest of us. My problem with Delta is that the terminal personnel, known for their customer service, were non-existent. There was no one to meet the passengers who were being herded into the terminal. There was no one with portable PAs or bullhorns telling the passengers what to do or where to go. There was just mass confusion.
To make the argument that no one could have conceived of a total loss of power is silly. Disasters are usually events no one expects. If you are responsible for the safety of the customers in a facility that you have some control over —the various Delta terminals — then you have a responsibility to have contingency plans for the unexpected, practice them, and execute them when the unimaginable happens.
The airport management must shoulder some of the blame as well. They should have a plan to move passengers between terminals if there is a problem with the escalators and/or “trains” in the tunnels. There were some busses, but obviously not enough. You could argue that the design of this airport invited this kind of fiasco. All the more reason to have a disaster plan.
For executives who were fortunate enough not to have experienced this mess, it should serve as an important wake up call: Is your organization prepared for the unimaginable, that event that can never happen?