Qantas: 54 alarms (and three cheers)

Earlier this month, I posted some thoughts on key social networking crisis management lessons that may – or may not – emanate from the Qantas A380 emergency landing.  To my knowledge, many of the posed questions have not been addressed on that part of the crisis response.  So let’s continue to set those social media questions aside.

However, let’s not overlook some of the real-world lessons from the situation.   For example, this AP story provides a harrowing account of what the crew faced in the cockpit.  Key excerpts:

“The amount of failures is unprecedented,” said Richard Woodward, a fellow Qantas A380 pilot who has spoken to all five pilots. “There is probably a one in 100 million chance to have all that go wrong.”

But it did.

Engine pieces sliced electric cables and hydraulic lines in the wing. Would the pilots still be able to fly the seven-story-tall plane?

The wing’s forward spar — one of the beams that attaches it to the plane — was damaged as well. And the wing’s two fuel tanks were punctured. As fuel leaked out, a growing imbalance was created between the left and right sides of the plane, Woodward said.

The electrical power problems prevented the pilots from pumping fuel forward from tanks in the tail. The plane became tail heavy.

That may have posed the greatest risk, safety experts said. If the plane got too far out of balance, the Singapore-to-Sydney jetliner would lose lift, stall and crash.

And then there was that incredible stream of computer messages, 54 in all, alerting the pilots to system failures or warning of impending failures.

And now, the important part:

The pilots watched as computer screens filled, only to be replaced by new screenfuls of warnings, he said.

“I don’t think any crew in the world would have been trained to deal with the amount of different issues this crew faced,” Woodward said.

As luck would have it, there were five experienced pilots — including three captains — aboard the plane. The flight’s captain, Richard de Crespigny, was being given his annual check ride — a test of his piloting skills — by another captain. That man was himself being evaluated by a third captain. There were also first and second officers, part of the normal three-pilot team. In all, the crew had over 100 years of flying experience.

De Crespigny concentrated on flying the plane, while the others dealt with the computer alarms and made announcements to the giant planeload of passengers, some of whom said they were frantically pointing to flames streaming from the engine. Working flat out, it took 50 minutes for the pilots work through all of the messages.

When pilots receive safety warnings, they are supposed to check the airline’s operating manual and implement specific procedures. But with so many warnings, the Qantas pilots had to sort through and prioritize the most serious problems first.

It’s likely that for some of the problems there were no procedures because no airline anticipates so many things going wrong at once, John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member said.

Once again, an experienced team proves greater than detailed plans and procedures in managing a crisis.  Plans and protocols are important, as are testing and, separately, training.  But you cannot put a price on real experienced crisis management leaders to guide you through hazards (be they real or reputational). 

In addition, Qantas seems to have taken an “appropriate over-reaction” to maintain its position on safety.   Maintenance issues and engine concerns are common in the airline industry, but when it is your airline that is being scrutinized, extra precautions are important to maintain safety and to limit undue passenger and public concerns.  In this report from The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), Chief Executive Alan Joyce defended the airline’s handling of the situation and the grounding of a separate Boeing-747 flight because of a separate engine issue.  Key callouts:

Mr. Joyce said Qantas’s cautious response to the A380 incident—grounding its fleet of six for more than three weeks—is viewed positively by many customers.

“These issues…demonstrate a strong positive safety culture, because when we found out a problem with an engine that had a design issue, we grounded the fleet until we knew how we could fix the issue,” Mr. Joyce said on Australian Broadcasting Corp. television.

“I think it’ll actually do our brand really good in the medium-to-long term,” he said.

For one, I tend to agree. 

I welcome your thoughts in the space below.

Dec. 3 Update:  This article from The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) provides details of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau’s report that provides more of the chilling details.  It is interesting to note that this report is being announced nearly a month after this incident, with good reason.  It takes time to unravel and assess all of the contributing factors for an accurate report…which will ultimately lead to safer flying for the public.  Juxtapose this deep deliberation with some of the immediacy of reporting that was being done through social networks where information about the unfolding events was happening, but not news.  This is a challenge for companies dealing with these situations — how to address the increasing calls for immediate information when organizations MUST let due dilligence run its course in the interest of accuracy to keep the public safe.

Dec. 3 Update #2:  Thanks to a tip from local colleague Philip Tate, I also learned that NPR’s “All Things Considered” did a 4-minute piece on this subject, which can be found here.

Dec. 8 Update #3:  Crisis management pro Jonathan Bernstein provides his thoughts on the Qantas situation and believes that the airline is on the right path to assure the public and shareholders that it is focused on safety.

Dec. 29 Update #4:  This interview with CEO Alan Joyce was posted in The Wall Street Journal (subscription reqired) and it provided two really interesting insights on socal networks.  Here are the two best callouts:

We knew that we had an issue with an aircraft, which was circling. I get text messages any time there’s operational issues. But there were rumors about a crash after parts of the aircraft had fallen in Indonesia. These tweets started appearing that a Qantas aircraft had crashed. Then one of the news agencies probably based a story inappropriately on the tweets and the share price collapsed.

Since then we’ve hired a group of people just to look at the social network side of things. We were ready for traditional media and we had a press conference by 4 o’clock that afternoon, which I fronted. And we had our press statement out within half an hour of us knowing the issue. But we’d missed this whole [social media] end of communication. Since then we’ve had a couple of other rumors occurring and we’ve gotten on top of it with tweets and Facebook, and we’ve killed it before it’s become a story.

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