Case Study Summary
In 1939, US Airways, then known as All American Aviation, began to offer a flying post office service to small communities in western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley. In 1949, passenger service began. After several mergers, names changes and the addition of planes, routes and services, in 1979, the company became USAir. In 1979, the company defined its self as US Airways. As of 2008, the company was the number one on time airline according to the US Department of Transportation’s monthly Air Travel Consumer Report (US Airways chronology, 2011).
On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 went down in the Hudson River. The plane was leaving New York’s LaGuardia Airport in route to Charlotte, North Carolina when it encountered a flock of Canadian geese. The pilot, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and the 154 passengers and crew were on board when according to US Airways (2011) the cripple aircraft was ditched.
US Airways had many strengths coming into this crisis situation. Fortunately in April 2008, the company hired James Olson as the Vice President of Corporate Communications. He made sure the company had an updated crisis plan. He also made sure the plan had rehearsed a catastrophic accident in December 2008. Olson also saw to it that the corporate communications team was aware of its duties. This meeting also included areas such as marketing, emergency planning, information technology and an external crisis response agency (Fearn-Banks, 2011).
Other strengths of US Airways included prepared corporate communication managers who flew to the scene in LaGuardia and those who prepared for the media in Charlotte. The CEO of the company, Doug Parker, after clearing his boardroom immediately designated it as the corporate command center. After the incident began, Olsen and his communication team immediately activated the emergency response plan. He had a six person staff which was also a strength for the company. They were able to begin writing the first news release with a goal of disseminating it in 15 minutes of hearing of the crisis. This was delayed because the team wanted to be accurate not fast in this situation (Fearn-Banks, 2011). However several actions did take place right away, such dispatching the Care Team to aid passengers and family members. Also the Family Support Hotline was established.
Another strength for US Airways was the pilot and crew. Instead of causing a plane crash, the pilot caused a flight accident by landing in the water as opposed to crashing. The crew was calm and able to keep the passengers calm. A well trained pilot and crew were definitely an advantage in this situation.
The war room in the Phoenix office was not ready. It could not meet the technology or phone demands required in a crisis. The information technology director had stated that it would be three months before the needed equipment could be installed (Fearn-Banks, 2011). Another weakness encountered was that the prepared crisis plan press release templates did not address a water landing. None of the templates fit the situation (Fearn-Banks, 2011).
Olsen had noted an out of date crisis plan and had taken the opportunity to update it and rehearse it. This preparedness gave the company the chance to be proactive in its response to the media, those involved in the incident and the public as a whole. The company was able to take positive actions and show positive images to all its publics. US Airways also used the marketing team to purchase key word terms related to the flight and utilize search engines like Google and Yahoo to the company’s advantage.
US Airways Care Team of employees was dispatched to New York to provide support such as cell phones and clothing and to Charlotte to provide support to family members. The team also provided emergency credit cards and cash to first responders so they could book hotel rooms and purchase other items that the passengers were forced to leave on the plane (Fearn-Banks, 2011).
The company also provided accurate information to the public using this opportunity to build its image as a concerned company. The company focused on the passengers’ safety and those affected by the incident. In twenty-four hours, they took an opportunity to make sure all passengers and crew was safe and accounted for before making any statement about them (Fearn-Banks, 2011).
The number of threats was reduced by the proactive nature of the crisis plan, but there were still possible threats. There was the likelihood of lawsuits, the dissemination of inaccurate data by others, federal regulation, the loss of customers and the loss of the public’s confidence in the airline. Any of these threats could have led to image problems and profit loss for the company.
- US Airways wanted to get its fact right and did not disseminate any information until they were sure it was correct.
- They established an emergency response phone service using key company personnel who were participating or listening to first responders and the Federal Aviation Administration as the communicated with the crew.
- Within thirty minutes of notification of the incident, a customer and media website was established for the flight.
- Within forty-five minutes, the first press release was issued to the media.
- The initial release was followed up on over the next few hours and days after the incident.
- Within ninety minutes, the CEO was conducting a press briefing.
- The company used the marketing team to purchase key word terms related to the flight and utilize search engines like Google and Yahoo to direct visitors to the established Flight 15449 web site.
- The Care Team of employees was sent to New York to provide support such as cell phones and clothing and to Charlotte to provide support to family members.
- The team also provided emergency credit cards and cash to first responders so they could book hotel rooms and purchase other items that the passengers were forced to leave on the plane.
- The CEO sent a letter to all passengers on the flight regarding the return of the items they were forced to leave on the plan. There was also a check for $5000 enclosed and a check to reimburse the costs of their airfare.
- The CEO also offered the services of the companies Family Support Center to passengers.
- A few days later another letter was sent to passengers regarding the items on the plan and offering them the most esteemed flier level, Chairman’s Preferred status for one year.
- Writer Dean Faust commended US Airways in Business Week for its actions towards passengers and its crisis management.
- Baltimore attorney James J. Hanks was quoted in the Business Week article as praising the pilot and crew. He also praised the Care Team for providing free hotel rooms, meals and dry clothing.
- New York Mayor Bloomberg held a press conference and allowed CEO Parker to honor the crew and all the first responders.
- The flight crew appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes, was interviewed by Katie Couric in Charlotte, and conducted dozens of interviews.
- Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger became a celebrity making numerous public appearances and hailed as a hero.
- The incident was not named a crisis instead it was to become known as “The Miracle on the Hudson”.
- A ceremony was hosted by US Airways to praise the employees who were directly involved in the incident response.
- The company distributed event video via DVD, of the media coverage, to all of its 33,000 employees and the video was also made available on their web site.
- The incident also generated numerous positive feature stories on survivors.
The US Airways crisis was called an incident then a miracle. Why? Because they had a Vice President of Corporate Communications that updated and rehearsed their crisis plan just in time. Although the plan did not address a water landing, it was in place and gave the company’s employees a guide to follow. They knew what they were going to do because they had developed and updated the crisis plan.
The company followed two different crisis communication theories. They followed the Apologia Theory of dissociation when it came to the accident. There was never an apology. They chose to inform the public that US Airways, according to Fearn-Banks (2011) that the company “seems to have committed a misdeed but actually had not” (p. 17). They made it known that everyone was fine and the pilot and crew had down exactly what they were supposed to do before, during and after the incident. They also used the Excellence Theory, Model 4-Two Way Symmetric Model when dealing with the public. According to Fearn-Banks (2011), they did not try to persuade the public,they just communicated what was going on. The listened and established a dialogue with their publics. The company also used social media for the the company and its public to create mutual benefit (p. 22).
In my opinion, this was a great example of crisis management. Everyone reacted according to the crisis plan. Managers and executives acted in responsible ways keeping their public informed of what was going on. This crisis resulted in a better reputation for US Airways. They received good press for the incident and increased their public awareness. They managed to turn crisis into a wonderful public relations campaign. The end result were safe passengers and crew along with a pilot as a hero. The strategies used by US Airways seemed to work well for the public and the passengers. There were a few lawsuits filled but for the most part the checks and letters the company sent were enough for passengers. In researching this case, I did find where some lawyers were looking for ways to get additional money for passengers on an individual basis, but many of these seeking additional funds have been called whiny and ungrateful on the internet.
Fearn-Banks, K. (2011). Crisis communication: A casbeook appraoch (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
US Airways chronology. (2011, November). Retrieved July 12, 2012, from US Airways: http://www.usairways.com/en-US/aboutus/pressroom/history/chronology.html