Case Study: US Airways Flight 1549
On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320, took off from LaGuardia Airport with 150 passengers and 5 crew members, bound for Charlotte, NC. Three minutes into the flight, it struck a flock of Canada geese and lost power in both engines. Air controllers tried to divert the US Airways plane back to LaGuardia or a nearby airport in New Jersey. Captain Chesley "Sully'' Sullenberger decided he could not safely land the plane in either of the airports, instructed passengers to “brace for impact,” and glided the plane into the Hudson River.
As water got in the drifting plane, the passengers walked out of the doors to stand on the wings or the partially submerged slides. A few swam away from the plane fearing an explosion. The temperature was 21 degrees Fahrenheit. Soon New York Waterway commuter ferries, police boats, fireboats, tugboats and Coast Guard craft converged on the scene to join the rescue effort.
All passengers and crew members were picked up and sent for treatment in hospitals in Manhattan and New Jersey for exposure to the brutal cold. A few people suffered serious injuries.
As the dramatic event unfolded in the media hub of New York City, with many eyewitnesses, it instantly became the headline story of the day internationally. The media and officials used the phrase “miracle on the Hudson” to describe the water landing and quick rescue. Gov. David Paterson said at a news conference in Manhattan: “This is a potential tragedy that may have become one of the most magnificent days in the history of New York City agencies.”
US Airways faced an immense amount of questions from the reporters and family members. Some of the passengers felt horrified by the shocking experience. Their family members, stunned by the news coverage, were worried about their well-being and eager to get in touch with them or reunite with them. Some passengers wanted to get to their planned destinations but worried about flight safety and preferred to travel by land. The passengers’ belongings, such as wallets, cell phones, computers, and luggage, were still in the partly submerged plane. Later a few passengers contacted law firms to consult about suing for emotional distress and other losses.
From the moment after the landing, survivors have been interviewed by the media, some immediately after being pulled from the wings of the floating plane. There was also an instant social media frenzy about the event. Meanwhile, National Transportation Safety Board started to conduct an investigation into the incident. Under these circumstances, any response action by the airline would be under close public scrutiny.
Course of PR Actions
US Airways immediately activated an emergency response plan and the staff was mobilized for on-site support in New York and Charlotte. The company kept providing the newest information through press releases and news interviews. It also stated that the company’s primary concern was those on board the airplane and their families. The communication team headed by James Olson learned from a call from the pilot that he walked up and down the aisle twice to make sure everyone was off the plane. But they still needed to have every person accounted for and confirmed to have survived, a process that took 24 hours. Company CEO Doug Parker made a statement before flying to New York from the company headquarter in Arizona, and appear in a joint news conference on January 16th with city officials to honor the crew and first responders.
US Airways activated a special 800 number for families to call and dispatched more than 100 employees as the Care Team on a Boeing 757 from headquarters. Scott Stewart, managing director for corporate finance, managed emergency funding for passengers and credit cards for employees to buy any medicines, toiletries, or personal items that passengers needed.
Passengers were provided dry clothes, warm meals, and prepaid cell phones, as well as flights for family members and daily calls from counselors. Staffers escorted each passenger to a new flight or a local New York hotel. They also arranged train tickets and rental cars for those who didn't want to fly. As some people lost their driver's licenses, US Airways reached out to high-level executives at Hertz and Amtrak to make sure they had no trouble getting a rental or a train ticket. The airline also retained locksmiths to help passengers who had lost their keys get back into their cars and homes.
US Airways sent $5,000 checks over the weekend to each of the 150 passengers to help compensate for items left behind, with a letter explaining that their luggage and other belongings might have to stay with investigators for months. The airline also reimbursed passengers for their ticket costs. Although some passengers and the National Air Disaster Alliance & Foundation considered the amount not high enough, US Airways indicated it employed claims adjusters to compensate passengers whose losses were higher than $5,000. The company didn't require passengers receiving the compensation to waive their legal rights, which was seen as an exception to the industry norm. The company also sent follow-up letters offering the service of the Customer Care Team and information on retrieval of their belongings.
The publicity events around Fight 1549 continued as time goes on. In the following months the entire crew made media appearances in programs such as 60 Minutes, CNN, and the David Letterman Show. Sullenberger’s return to work later that year and his retirement in March 2010 made headlines again. The passengers and crew still hold reunions at the anniversaries of the landing. In 2016 the film Sully, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Clint Eastwood, was produced based on Sullenberger’s autobiography. Meanwhile James Olson was appointed by United Airlines as senior vice president of Corporate Communications.
Moral of the story
A Bloomberg Businessweek article praised the airline's care of Flight 1549's passengers as a model for crisis management. Public relations practitioners should learn that in an emergency situation, even when the news media was friendly, being in the spotlight makes it all the more important to follow ethical guidelines of public relations and address various aspects of the public’s concerns dutifully and conscientiously.
Fearn-Banks, K. (2016). “Transportation Crises.” In Crisis communications: A casebook approach. Routledge. 281-302.
Foust, D. (2009, Feb 19) “US Airways: After the ‘Miracle on the Hudson.’” Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2009-02-18/us-airways-after-the-miracle-on-the-hudson
McFadden, R. (2009, Jan 15) “Pilot Is Hailed After Jetliner’s Icy Plunge.” New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/16/nyregion/16crash.htmlNext Page: Assessment 2