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Flying high in the face of disaster

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

When the sky starts falling, how will you react as a leader?

As the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupted and spewed ash across the North Atlantic, all of Europe’s air space was forced to close, grounding hundreds of flights. Airline leaders had a mega-disaster on their hands.

Heathrow Airport was a mass of confusion and anger, but British Airways swung quickly into action.

  • It led thousands of passengers to two large help counters, where they were efficiently re-ticketed and offered lodging.
  • It posted updates in host hotels giving customers a daily update, though even CEO Willie Walsh didn’t know for certain when normalcy would return.
  • It kept a full staff at the airport to help visitors.

Meanwhile, most other major ­carriers closed up shop, sent staff home and posted disclaimers on their websites and phone recordings. Consumers were on their own.

A customer of another airline spent a week at a youth hostel and couldn’t reach her airline, no matter how many times she tried. “Never,” she said, “I tell you, never again” would she fly with that carrier.

Perhaps most significantly, Walsh flew into the ash’s path with test pilots to see the situation for himself. No other CEO showed his willingness to stand in front of the troops, instead urging them on from a leather chair.

When the sky was literally falling, Walsh put customers first, ahead of the bottom line and even ahead of his own safety.

— Adapted from “How British Airways held onto its customers after a disaster,” Bart Jackson, SmartBlog on Leadership.

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