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Lessons learned from British Airways' emergency landing in Valencia

Author: Charlie Maclean Bristol, Training Director, FBCI, FEPS

This week Charlie looks at what lessons we can learn from British Airways' recent emergency landing at Valencia Airport.

One of the problems of being a consultant is that you rarely get the opportunity to actually manage or participate in the response to an incident. Instead you spend your life telling people how they should respond. To learn from other’s experiences and to keep yourself up-to-date, you have to constantly read articles, attend conferences and listen to presentations and webinars. What I really enjoy is hearing from someone who was involved first-hand in an incident; what happened, what they did, how they felt, and the minor details, which you never really get from reading articles. Yesterday I was discussing the details of an exercise with a client and as the meeting came to an end, she mentioned that she was in the British Airways plane which made an emergency landing at Valencia Airport on 5th August, after fumes filled the cabin. I thought in this week’s bulletin I would recount her story and discuss some lessons I think we can learn from her experience.

The first inkling of a problem came during take-off from Heathrow, where there was a strange smell in the cabin, but it was not mentioned by anyone. When the flight was about 15 minutes from Valencia, the cabin began to fill with fumes, which she described as being like dry ice but stronger smelling. The next thing she said happened was that the cabin crew got their own breathing apparatus on but didn't communicate anything, so everyone in the cabin looked at each other, wondering what was going on.

Lesson 1 – Those in charge of customers (in this case passengers) need to communicate what is going on in an emergency, even if at that moment they don’t know what it is or the cause. Just reassurance to say there is an emergency, but we are dealing with it so please just stay in your seat, would at least be assurance that things were under control.

Passengers were waiting for the oxygen masks to deploy, as they saw smoke. In actual fact oxygen masks are only used in decompression and they source their oxygen from the same place as the passenger cabin air. If the masks had have been deployed, it would have caused passengers to breathe in the fumes directly.

Lesson 2 – If you are not going to use an emergency system, tell passengers why you are not using it.

The aircraft landed safely and after some difficulty in getting the doors open, all passengers evacuated the plane using the slides. I asked if anyone took their bags with them, as you are not meant to do so - she said that some people did, but most didn’t.

Lesson 3 – Even though you tell people the emergency procedures, some will not obey them in favour of their own interests.

Once all passengers were off the plane, there was a void of anyone in charge to organise the post-evacuation. The airport had been closed as they thought there could be a crash, so there was a limited amount of staff to organise and look after the evacuated passengers. The Valencia fire service were there, but they were concentrating on the plane and there were no ambulances. A number of people were distressed and suffering from the effects of the fumes, so they had to wait until ambulances were called for assistance. Before passengers were allowed into the terminal, the local staff tried to check the passengers’ passports but quickly realised, as they were told quite forcefully by passengers, most had left their passports in their hand luggage which was still on the plane.

Baggage was the next problem. Small groups were escorted onto the plane to collect their hand luggage, but hold baggage was not returned to passengers until 48 hours after the event.

Lesson 4 – I can understand that BA may not have their own staff at the airport immediately after the event and they have to rely on the airport’s emergency plans. Perhaps this was a scenario Valencia airport had not prepared for, but BA is responsible for its customers and should have made sure that the airport’s response was prepared for this type of event.

I was told that after the event, BA’s response was woeful, and the post-event communications were almost non-existent. Any attempt to get information from the customer service line failed after having to hold on the phone for over an hour. A call to the sales line was very swiftly answered and the salesperson managed to give some information on baggage and whether passengers could buy replacement clothes in the meantime. The only proactive information seems to be a generic email. The lack of information, disregard of the incident and lack of any compensation for a ruined holiday, has resulted in extremely frustrated BA customers.

Lesson 5 - Lack of information, no communication, as well as the feeling that they have been disregarded by an arrogant company, results in great frustration from the customers affected by an incident. BA had their customers’ email addresses and phone numbers, and there were only 175 passengers, so it would not have been that difficult to get in contact and offer them all help. Just because nobody died or was badly injured doesn’t mean that people were not affected by the incident, and they still expect to be looked after by the company.

Lesson 6 - Failure to provide adequate information and to up-scale the customer call centre, or provide a dedicated helpline after an incident, can often lead to further bad press. Customers then complain about the company’s response, drawing further attention to the incident.

Lesson 7 – Pay generous compensation early. This was not the nice relaxing holiday which my client had booked. If BA had given her an immediate refund of the full amount, goodwill would have gone a good way to getting back the respect and trust which had been lost. Pay generous compensation now or you will pay much more later when the class action forms, and the lawyers get involved.

Lesson 8 – The lady involved in this incident said she regularly flies British Airways, as she sees them as a premier brand and would rather pay the extra money than go with a budget airline. When brands don’t adhere to their values and cost point, your relationship with them can be severely damaged, and you may switch to another brand or go with a low-cost airline as it is not worth paying the extra.

Although nobody died or was injured, hearing about BA’s response was a classic example of how not to respond to an incident. This incident was only in the news for a day or so, but for those affected this incident will continue for months, if not a year or two.

You might be interested in the following stories

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Drones and Airports

The British Airways IT Outage – An Alternative View

You may be interested in the following course

BCI Incident Response and Crisis Management course

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