How airlines deal with emergency situations? [Interview]
When the time of crisis comes and the worst happens, nobody wants to be in their shoes. But it is their job to rise to the occasion and respond in emergency situations as quickly and efficiently as possible. AeroTime has talked with Susanna Halonen-Manner, the Vice President Emergency Response in Norwegian Group Airlines since 2015, on the role of leadership, organizational expertise, and the hard facts of crisis communication.
What do you describe as an “emergency situation”?
We define emergency quite strictly, how the International Civil Aviation Organization defines an accident (loss of life, serious injuries or aircraft severely damaged). And then on top of that element, we also recognize that there are other events other than an aircraft accident.
It could be a security situation ‒ a threat to aviation security, hijack or sabotage, an unlawful act. Furthermore, in case of pandemics, diseases that become global, plans should also be implemented; also if you have natural disasters (volcano disruption in Iceland is a very good example). Financial crisis, IT problems - it is also part of disruptions, but more commercial.
In crisis, you have mentioned the critical first hour. I am under the impression that it is all about communication.
It is. It is about establishing leadership, about taking charge of your event. Because with social media, nowadays information goes very quickly and you need to be present, you need to present the facts. So, you have to get your organization notified, inform people that something has happened, and get a reply back to see who can partake, so you know how big your organization is going to be. Of course, there are key people. If they are not responding, we would call them. Most of the people do reply and we can see how the organization is going to be formed.
And then the key message: if you have a serious event, you need to know what you are talking about. That is why the information is so crucial in the beginning.For this, we have first messages ready to go. They are cleared with a lot of authorities so we can really respond quickly. And you need to rehearse it. So, we rehearse them ‒ at Norwegian we do it every month. We have different events and we test it.
Is it difficult to establish communication, facts if the event/situation is ongoing? For instance, during an emergency landing, when you do not know how it is going to end up.
We have standardized certain messages and we have categorized the events. When there is a full mayday, we know that, unfortunately, we may have a very serious event at hand.Then we have the standardized pre-messages. When we get one of them, a smaller part of the organization goes into a stand-by mode. When the situation is over, it will either be declared as a mayday, or, hopefully everything goes well - we get a new notification that everything is ok.
For instance, when we had bad weather at Gatwick, one of our planes could not land and had to do a go-around. We received a message “of the go around, we are trying to go to Luton, but Luton was already being full. So, pilots decided to go to Stansted.'' Then we received a second message [saying] “aircraft landed at Stansted”. But these are the type of events when you are pre-advised and could step up.
After the Ethiopian accident, pre-established communications protocols changed within hours. Do you have any observations regarding this?
In general, whenever there is an accident, airlines must fulfill their role ‒ to respond and take care of people who have been affected.
The actual investigation part is always left to the state of occurrence, according to annex 13 of the Chicago Convention. The state of occurrence will investigate and invite other states to assist with the investigation. Airlines are not part of that. We should focus on taking care of those people that are probably having the worst day of their lives and let the competent people do the independent investigation.
Any accident, regardless of where it happens, is always a sad day for our industry. But I am very confident that the current set-up with a clear division of duties is good.
How has social media changed your work when compared to five or ten years ago? Because in emergency situations, it appears that social media is becoming a third player, which might be disturbing your process.
Everything happens quicker. Also, there are no “local” accidents anymore. They happen locally, but they are very global.
Social media is a powerful tool. It is an open source, people can comment. This is why the first hour is so important: to start communicating, get the facts out and take leadership over the event. You do not want the publicum in social media to take charge. Which comes back to the importance of the first hours.
Notify people and take leadership and control. It is better when people follow our sites, talk to our communications people. Because we have the facts and the plan [on] how we are going to help these people.
How do you describe leadership?
Working in crisis management we currently have five leaders called emergency directors. They have been trained in leadership in handling an event. We are not looking for a lot of variations of what type of leader you are, but rather the ability to lead the process of emergency response.
Leadership is so critical when handling an event, it should be very standardized. This is important [in order] to reduce the uncertainty from the process; it allows time to deal with the event. When people know what to expect as they participate in the team, then they can use their full capacity to solve the situation at hand.
Overall, I do think it is important when building crisis management processes to standardize them as much as possible (i.e. standardized messages, standardized leadership, standardized process). We know exactly what the leader is going to do, how we are going to run the operation.
What is the role of the Human Factor in crisis management?
The actual process helps to deal with uncertainty. We are human beings; you can never take away human errors. But if you lessen the uncertainty, then you are reducing the chances of these human errors occurring.
Susanna Halonen-Manner, Vice President Emergency Response, Norwegian Group Airlines, since 2015. Currently a member of the Board of the Aviation Emergency Response Organization (AERO) in Washington DC. Previous work history includes work in the field of emergency response for other airlines and airline alliance work, the latter primarily at strategic level. Susanna holds a degree in Master of Science in Economy and an MBA. Currently in the process of finalizing a Master of Law degree at Helsinki University specializing in International Aviation Law.
This interview was taken at AIR Convention Asia on May 2, 2019. You can find out more about the conference here.
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