Crisis management - Aviation - Corona - Pandemic

Crisis management in aviation: before, during and after coronavirus-related grounding

Reiner Hertl
03.08.2020
5 minutes

Dealing systematically with critical situations – this is how “crisis management” can be outlined. And in the same way that today’s “crisis” inevitably involves a “Corona”: crisis managers are always faced with unwanted situations. Whether or not these are predictable. Let us accompany them in theory and practice for a while at their work, on the ground and in the air.

Instead of smooth regular operations: interruptions, disruptions, incidents

The requirements are primarily concerned with safety: safety of passengers, safety of staff. Safeguarding of supply chains and operational processes. Protection of the airline company and its reputation. Even small events or developments call crisis management to action. Because, due to the generally close interconnection of the various sectors within the air transport industry, a smaller crisis can easily trigger a larger one in the network. Even minor incidents can have more serious consequences.

Starting with delays. Caused by location problems or staff strikes, by IT failures or technical faults, e.g. in baggage transport. Caused by capricious weather conditions and weather influences, air traffic disruptions caused by drones or birds. Passengers at risk. Right up to the very big, escalating crises. Like the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, for example.

Experience and predictability, dealing with uncertainty

Let us also remember the effects of the world economic crisis, the Icelandic volcanic ash clouds or the spread of the Sars virus. Looking back on such events, Ralph Beisel, Chief Executive Officer of the German Airports Association (ADV) recently said that German airports are not inexperienced in crisis management. But the downward trend caused by corona exceeds all previous experience.

The Covid-19 crisis is causing uncertainty. Many factors to which adequate responses must be made remain open. Developments have to be reassessed again and again, and yet due decisions have to be made all the same. In June, for example, the Frankfurt airport operator Fraport AG announced that thousands of jobs would be cut, to continue the example of the airports. Prior to this, 18,000 of the 22,000 employees had been on short-time work at times.

Whether active or reactive response strategies, crisis management must be capable of both. And not to forget crisis communication:

Active and reactive crisis management, crisis and disaster communication

Active crisis management starts before a crisis breaks out – crisis prevention. Reactive crisis management takes effect after the outbreak of a crisis – crisis management. Two case studies of crisis management and crisis communication that have also encountered human tragedies:

The crisis communication of then Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg in 2019 after the second crash of a Boeing 737 Max. This crisis PR was widely criticized. As reserved, even irreverent in its approach, hardly offering clear answers. Ultimately, Boeing’s reputation was damaged by it. And Muilenburg first had to give up his function as Chairman, and then also as CEO – WingMag reported on the matter. Also about the test flights of the model that have now been restarted after a long grounding. For which Boeing now has to cope with many cancelled orders.

Boeing 737 MAX - Causes
Boeing 737 Max

A different perspective: crisis communication in the Germanwings 2015 disaster: The parent company Lufthansa quickly positioned itself (also on social media), communicated its sympathy authentically and provided reliable information. In the end, this brought about what is very relevant in disaster and crisis communication: not damaging the company’s reputation. The subsidiary Germanwings was also able to fall back on a well-founded crisis manual. One of the procedures of crisis management. Which other methods are still in use?

Simulations as a crisis management tool: the example of rescue logistics

The preparation of contingency plans proves its worth. Scenarios also have their place in an efficiently equipped instrument case. A case study for simulation: the deployment of DLR, the German Aerospace Center, during an earthquake disaster control exercise in Austria last year. Led by the EU project DRIVER + (Driving Innovation in Crisis Management for European Resilience): A UAS demonstrator was used to record the situation after a disaster without delay and to plan relief operations. For overflying areas that are difficult to access. To provide rescue services with crucial real-time information.

Test scenarios for economic and operational crises

In order to analyse crisis situations, develop strategies and initiate countermeasures, test scenarios with feedback are always important for a crisis team. A crisis team that has been trained for relevant scenarios has already internalised necessary procedures and is prepared. Also regarding the cooperation with organizations:

Authorities and addressees: institutions issuing directives

A crisis management group must seek direct contact with decision-makers at many levels of the air transport system. So, who would have decision-making sovereignty in a completely new crisis situation in Germany? Or issue guidelines and recommendations? The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, the Federal Office of Civil Aeronautics, the Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the ICAO. If it were again a new health hazard: the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

The EACCC (European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell) was set up after the great volcanic ash crisis of 2010 and 2011. Our last case study from the past. Even then, people spoke of “previously unknown challenges” – as they do today during pandemic times. There is always a new dimension:

Crisis management in aviation - Volcanic eruption

Eyjafjallajökull and Grimsvötn – when world air traffic is hit

At that time, air traffic was affected by the volcanic eruptions, not only between individual countries but also between continents. Such crisis management therefore required close coordination and dialogue with the national air traffic control authorities. The BMVI coordinated the crisis teams of the German Air Traffic Control and the German Meteorological Service. ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, developed recommendations for action for existing packages of measures. The BMVI participated with experts in the international ICAO working group.

The questioning and consultation of experts and specialists has proven to be a cornerstone of crisis management. A possible further pillar:

Disaster and crisis management into expert hands

Service providers also offer the aviation industry external solutions in the event of a crisis. Packages ranging from customized alerting, communication processes such as the establishment of call centres, to disaster recovery services and disaster human services in the event of a disaster. Services that airlines do not use in regular operations. And maintain fewer infrastructures for this. A pool of resources that companies can access in the event of a crisis to support their own crisis management.

Between danger and opportunity – the not only negative side of a crisis

From the origin of the word, “crisis” stands for “turning point”, but above all: “decision”, and (as revision-proof as possible) creating a basis for decisions and get them off the ground, this is what crisis management is all about. Whereby not all crises are the same – each is different in each individual case. There is no one-size-fits-all, but there are standard solutions. Flexibility is required. And early detection and in advance: practice. Handlings can be trained for the predictable incidents. Crisis expertise has to prove itself on the unpredictable like Covid-19. Crisis management in aviation is always a: navigating, piloting.

Cover picture © Juraj Varga on Pixabay

by Reiner Hertl

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