By: Dawn Glibertson
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg probably took the words right out of US Airways Chief Executive Doug Parker’s mouth when he summed up the aftermath of the airline’s Hudson River accident.
“If it was going to have to happen, this outcome is as good as you could ever hope and pray for,” Bloomberg said Thursday.
The Tempe-based airline likely escaped major financial, legal and image repercussions when what initially looked to be a dire situation turned into a dramatic rescue with the 155 passengers and crew quickly plucked from the water.
Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, the pilot, was instantly hailed as a hero by Bloomberg and a host of others for landing after striking a flock of birds. His picture and name were flashed across television stations and on the Internet before the airline identified him.
“When you have the mayor of New York saying it was a miracle landing, I would say that’s a pretty good endorsement of your employees’ capabilities,” said Steve Roman, a partner in Phoenix-based FirstStrategic Communications and Public Affairs and a former corporate public-relations executive.
“I would think, from US Airways’ perspective, that would be a net positive of what could have been a very tragic situation,” Roman added.
Parker, who left for New York after the crash, and other US Airways executives were unavailable to discuss the accident Thursday.
Airlines are prepared at all levels for the worst when it comes to a crash, despite the relative rarity.
“There’s emergency-response training, family-assistance training and all these regulations and expectations,” said Bruce Blythe, chief executive officer of Atlanta-based Crisis Management International, which counsels airlines and other companies and developed the first airline family-assistance program, at American Airlines.
“They rehearse these things with exercises,” Blythe added.
Thursday’s accident was the first major crisis-management test faced by the new US Airways since the America West/US Airways merger more than three years ago. The former US Airways had several fatal crashes over the years, but America West, where Parker and other top executives had worked, had none.
It is too early to judge the airline’s handling of the crisis. But it took the usual industry steps in the immediate aftermath.
It set up a toll-free telephone number for passengers’ families, put alerts front and center on USAirways.com, engaged on-call public-relations experts and airport officials, and issued occasional updates to the media and employees. There were a couple of negative comments from employees on Internet message boards about a perceived delay in getting out the first memo.
Parker held a brief, impromptu news conference outside the airline’s Tempe headquarters for camped-out television reporters. He said the airline had activated its “US Airways Care” team of specially trained employee volunteers to help assist those affected.
Blythe said the true test will be how the airline takes care of the affected passengers and crew members and their families.
“If you blow it, then what happens is you have outrage,” he said. “Outrage is one thing that’s going to make your crisis last longer. When people are upset like this, and you don’t handle it well, it starts to affect your reputation.”
Although there were no fatalities, US Airways isn’t out of the legal woods from the accident, experts say.
Alisa Brodkowitz, a personal-injury lawyer in Seattle whose firm handles airline-accident victims, said the airport is likely to be the biggest target if it is determined birds were at fault.
“Airports do take a lot of measures to make sure that birds are nowhere near the airport,” she said. ‘I think that people would look to LaGuardia in a potential lawsuit.”
The airport likely would draw US Airways into the case, suggesting they had a role or were at fault, Brodkowitz said.
“There will always be scrutiny on the airline,” she said. “That scrutiny may be in the form of ‘Did you know about these birds? Was there a pilot who took off before you who could have told you about them? Had they encountered them before?’ ”
Passengers terrified by the water landing are likely to seek compensation, she said.
“I think that, in the aftermath, you’re going to see a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said.
Brodkowitz sees some similarities with the Continental Airlines accident in Denver before Christmas, where a plane veered off the runway on takeoff and caught fire. Everyone survived. The legal risk is potentially bigger in that case, she said, because there are questions about whether the plane should have taken off in high winds.
Houston-based Continental has been criticized for handing out spending money and drink coupons after the crash, with some saying the airline was trying to buy off the passengers. A Continental spokesperson said the airline was taking care of customers, not trying to head off legal compensation.