US Airways Case Summary

Lynn Luig

US Airways Case Summary

Background

            US Airways is an airline based in Tempe, Arizona USA. They have a fleet of 340 mainline jet aircraft and 300 regional jet and turbo-prop aircraft connecting 200 destinations. They coordinate about 3,208 daily flights. US Airways started as All American Aviation Inc, founded by the du Pont family. The company suffered a reputation for years of bad customer service and had bad publicity. At one time, they were nicknamed “Agony Air” by its publics. They rebranded in 1979 to USAir and again in 1996 the airline announced that it would change its name to US Airways and introduced a new corporate identity in early 1997 including a new logo which was a stylized version of the US flag.

Problem

            On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 had to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River only six minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport. About three minutes into the flight, several Canadian Geese were sucked into the engines on each side of the plane. Captain Sullenberger transmitted “Hit birds. Lost thrust on both engines.” After reaching an altitude of about 3,060 feet and deciding that the plane wouldn’t make it back to La Gaurdia or to any nearby landing strips, Captain Sullenberger took the controls and landed the plane safely with no power in the Hudson in front of millions of New Yorkers. The 155 occupants (including 3 flight attendants and 2 pilots) evacuated safely and were rescued by local watercraft and ferries. Seventy eight people were treated at nearby hospitals, mostly for minor injuries and hypothermia. There were five serious injuries and no deaths.

Situation Analysis

Strengths

            By far the most important strength in this case is the pilot in command, 57-year-old Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger. He is a former fighter pilot and has been an airline pilot since 1980. He is also a safety expert and a glider pilot. Captain Sully took the controls after the engines stalled as his first officer read through a three page emergency procedures checklist. After the plane was in the water, floating and drifting with the passengers standing on the submerged wings, Captain Sullenberg walked up and down the aisle twice to be certain that everyone had been evacuated and he was the last person to leave the plane.

            The location that he chose for the “ditching” was also a strength. The plane landed near three boat terminals for the ferry and a sightseeing cruise with Manhattan emergency responders within view of the crash. The first boat got to the plane within four minutes. About 65 ambulances were ready for survivors as they walked off of the boats.

            A recent, new revamp of US Airways’ crisis communications plan was practiced and drilled frequently and was fresh on the minds of the crisis team.

Weakness

            The Airbus 320, the craft in this case relies on the two engines as its primary source of energy. Nearly 500 planes have been damaged by collisions with birds since 2000, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. About 166 of those planes had to make emergency landings. The flight pattern of flight 1549 is known to go through a migratory path for Canadian Geese. Noticing these prodromes, US Airways should have changed their flight pattern before this event. Also, one of the inflatable slides failed to open. Air temperature at that time was about 20 °F, and the water was 36 °F putting the passengers at risk for hypothermia.

Opportunity

                The opportunity in this case for US Airways was for them to make an example out of this event and bolster their reputation. This event has proven that their business is run efficiently with quality service and well trained employees.

Threats

                The cause of this accident is still prevalent and fairly unpredictable. A repeat of this event would most likely cause bad publicity. The survivors could also sue the company.

Strategies

  • In October, 2008 the Corporate Communications Vice President of US Airways ordered his team to reduce the out of date, 125 page crisis communications plan down to a user friendly 15 page version.
  • Immediately after hearing the news, US Airways executives stopped what they were doing to support the crisis team. Many of them took immediate flights to La Gaudia or Tempe Arizona.
  • The CEO was in the identified command center at the time and immediately installed an advanced phone system to handle the high volume of calls.
  • A news release was in the works immediately with a goal to have it released within 15 minutes.
  • US Airways waited to confirm survivors until each one had been contacted, determined to be more accurate than fast.
  • A “bridge line” was set up to enable key personnel to have first hand information communicated to them from first responders, the crew and the FAA.
  • A website dedicated to updating information about the incident was up within 30 minutes from notification of the ditching.
  • The first news release was within 45 minutes.
  • A press conference with the CEO was conducted within 90 minutes in which he confirmed that the flight had been involved in an accident.
  • Key terms about the crash were bought from search engines (including Yahoo and Google) so that the public would be directed to the website.
  • Cell phones, emergency credit cards for purchase of hotel rooms and clothing were quickly provided to passengers by about 50 US Airways employees.
  • A toll free number was available for family members for updates on the survivors’ whereabouts.
  • Each passenger received a letter of apology from the CEO with instructions on how to receive belongings, a check for $5,000 and a check to reimburse their air fare.
  • A family support center was established.
  • Another letter from the CEO was received by survivors on Jan 21 related to receiving their belongings.
  • US Airways’ customer care team personally delivered valuables to survivors.
  • All survivors were given chairmen’s preferred flight status through March, 2010.
  • The entire flight crew went on 60 minutes a month later to discuss the event.
  • US Airways hosted a one year reunion ceremony at the crash site.
  • Use of the flight’s number, 1549, was discontinued and the flight pattern was changed.
  • Passengers reported they were offered $10,000 each not to sue US Airways for damages by American International Group (AIG), the airline’s insurance carrier.
  • On Jan 26th, there was another press conference with the CEO.

Consequences

            The entire crew of Flight 1549 was later awarded the Master’s Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators award. There was no loss of life but many survivors suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The crew of Flight 1549 was given a standing ovation at the Super Bowl that year. The Mayor of New York City presented the Keys to the City to the crew. An article in Business Week stated that US Airways was “a model in crisis management.” Many media sources referred to the crew as heroes and the event has been called a “Miracle on the Hudson.”

Comments

            US Airways showed textbook crisis management by managing each stage of this crisis. They reacted immediately upon detection of the crises from the media, they were well prepared to respond swiftly in a variety of ways to prevent the positive public opinion from going sour, they utilized news conferences and social media to contain the crisis and they provided optimal support to survivors and were able to recover quickly.

            United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and Environmental Protection Departments showed that they learned from this crisis by capturing and gassing about 1,235 Canadian Geese in June and July 2009. The Agriculture Department undertook another goose control measure by coating 1,739 eggs with corn oil, which prevents goslings from developing by depriving them of air. This is all an attempt to thin out the goose population near LaGuardia airport.

           

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5 Responses to US Airways Case Summary

  1. karobinson5 says:

    Lynn,
    You took a great approach to this case. I enjoyed reading about the follow up on the problem of the Canadian geese. This was a textbook case of crisis management. The company was prepared with a crisis plan that they had rehearsed. Since they were prepared they were able to use the crisis to their advantage. As you stated, they took this crisis and used it to enhance their reputation. The company was able to repeatedly show the world that they had quality employees. They gave the pilots, flight crew and response team members all the credit for the successful actions they took. Their publics like this. People love to see and hear about corporate America giving their employees credit for a job well done. This case proved to be a great free public awareness campaign for US Airways.

  2. djwindholz says:

    I agree that the most important strength that the organization had was the Commander. He made an excellent decision to ditch the plane in the Hudson River rather then risk crashing in a populated area. He also showed great leadership and his concern for others. It was nice to hear about a Captain concerned about others and getting all the passengers to safety before worrying about himself!!

  3. lynnluig says:

    I also wanted to mention, in regards to how skilled Captain Sully actually is, flight simulations in France (where the airbus 320 was made) later proved that if he had decided to try to fly back to another airport, he would have crashed. 4/4 pilots crashed in the simulator after making this decision with a 30 second delay added for realistic decision making. Without the 30 second delay, they all landed the plane in nearby airports safely. To me, this means that he was able to make a split decision that saved everyone’s life.

  4. l992 says:

    I agree that this was a textbook crisis communication plan. They were very fortunate to have just practiced one months before. I also agree that the real hero here is the captain of the airplane. Captain Sully not only carefully guided the plane onto the Hudson saving thousands of people, but he walked back through the plane himself checking to see if everyone was safe. That act of honor could do more for a companies reputation than any crisis communication plan.

  5. l992 says:

    With a crisis communication plan, there are is much more work to be done, than just reacting when the crisis occurs. There are a multiple jobs to be done before the crisis even happens like watching for prodromes. This group did a really good of listing of all the duties that need to be done to detect a crisis, or to lessen the blow of a crisis. I believe that this part of the plan is overlooked often, and your group did a great job of covering this aspect of a crisis plan.

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