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The current problems with the Boeing's 787 Dreamliner have reminded me of a personal experience a couple of years ago. On the 17th Dec. 2009 I was a passenger on an early A380 Qantas flight from Singapore toMelbourne that experienced a catastrophic engine failure after take off, that came close to destroying a wing, and of course we had to return to Singapore.

From a risk and issues management perspective, overall the Qantas response was very good. In flight the information provided to passengers was timely, accurate and relevant.

By the time the aircraft landed some 40 minutes after the incident, busses and hotel rooms were organized, the hotel had found additional staff so check-in was quick and an evening meal provided (not bad for a problem that occurred close to midnight Singapore time).

The pre-organized emergency response plans even included bright orange stickers to wear so people directing us to the busses, etc could identify the 350 odd people from the flight. Overall, from the flight crew’s response to the initial problem through to the ground crews management of 350 disoriented passengers the initial response was great and clearly demonstrated a well thought out response plan.

However, once the initial issues were managed, the following 12 to 18 hours were not so good – perhaps the accountants started to worry about costs?? There was no local contact point provided, no ability to deal with individual issues such as my need to access the Mosaic business systems (I had to pay for the connection) and only limited communication. The communications were OK as a basis but lacked individuality.

What I find really strange is the time one would have expected problems immediately after the engine failure the Qantas service was exemplary, later when one would have expected the situation to be under control the Qantas service collapsed to a fairly low level of customer care.

The lessons to be learned from this experience are twofold. Firstly, good response plans really do make a difference, and there may be a place for generic plans at the organizational/PMO level for issues likely to occur across a range of projects rather than each individual project inventing their own. These generic response plans could also identify corporate resources that can be called in to help resolve an issue.

The second, more important lesson is the effectiveness of the initial response can be seriously damaged if the caring diminishes before the people inconvenienced by the issue are fully over the problem. The Qantas response was technically efficient, through to flying a replacement aircraft into Singapore for our journey to continue some 23 hours later; there are only a limited number of aircraft sitting around with nothing to do…..

Where Qantas failed was in personalizing the follow through to help people such as myself who lost a days business minimize the inconvenience. Just a little extra care and I would have been praising Qantas 100%, as it is I felt rather disappointed in the final outcome: a C+ response rather than an A+ and all of the grades were lost at a time when the organization had had time to think about its reaction, rather than when the problem first occurred.

Risk response plans need to deal with more than just the technical issues. Managing people’s expectations and disappointments is at least as important if the overall damage caused by a risk event or issue is to be minimized.  Most of our projects don’t have 350 lives at stake but disasters do happen ranging from hurricanes and tornadoes through to suppliers going bankrupt and we need to be able to manage onwards.

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