All Articles Leadership Inspiration How British Airways held onto its customers after a disaster

How British Airways held onto its customers after a disaster

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This guest post is by Bart Jackson, CEO of Prometheus Publishing. Prior to founding Prometheus, Jackson founded Biz4NJ, an online business journal.

When the sky starts falling, what is the business leader’s first consideration?

There’s only one right answer, and on April 16, 2010, Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways, made the right call. That day, when the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull erupted, Walsh considered above all else the comfort and well being of his customers. As volcanic ash spewed across the North Atlantic, all of Europe’s and much of eastern America’s air space was forced to close.

My wife and I landed in London’s Heathrow Airport expecting a four-hour layover on our way to a conference in the Czech Republic. Within seconds of arriving, we were told that our trip had come to an indefinite end. Having spent 30 years as a business journalist, recording how major firms faced crises of all levels worldwide, I was determined to see how the major airlines handled this mega-disaster — and what harvests their strategies reaped.

Under British Airway’s wing
In the ensuing hours, Heathrow seethed in a mass of confusion, fear, anger, and above all, ignorance. Nobody, not even Walsh, knew when any flight would take off again. But British Airways swung rapidly into action. Their passengers (of which we were fortunately two) were led to two huge help counters. One provided re-ticketing, the second offered passengers their night’s lodging. The lines swelled to thousands and stretched in ungodly zigzags, but every available BA worker was manning a booth. Each one had precise instructions, with hotel and ticket vouchers at the ready. Someone, despite the immense pressure, had thought this through very carefully.

Within five hours, my wife and I were dropped off at the Waverly Hilton, a short underground ride from Trafalgar Square. Here we would spend the next eight days, courtesy of British Airways. Each day, in each host hotel, updates were posted giving the latest best estimates for possible air flights. Those who wanted to revisit the airport found most all other airlines’ booths closed and shuttered. But Walsh decided that British Airways would retain a full staff at the airport to assist any querying visitors.

Admirability points earned
Airlines would send up toughened test pilots to brave the heat and ash to see if commercial flights were yet possible. Walsh alone, of all the airline CEOs, accompanied his pilots up into the volcano’s path. Yes, the press was well alerted as Walsh set out on his explorations, but the risk was undeniably real. It represents the concept that to lead effectively, you had best stand in front of your troops, rather than urge them on from a leather chair far out of harm’s way. Later we heard several employees remark that they would never have taken Walsh’s risk.

Sitting in London’s cafes and pubs, we witnessed an ardent and angry poll of the airlines’ handling of this disaster. Fellow strandees were swapping stories, and British Airways’ strategy could already be seen to make points. Not all airlines came out so well. Most other major carriers had simply shut up their shops, sent the staff home, and put on recorded disclaimers on website and phone lines. Their message came through loud and clear: “You are on your own.” One 60-year-old woman who had spent a week at a youth hostel with dwindling cash supplies, had tried thrice daily to contact her airline, always in vain. She summed up her reaction to her treatment with “That XX Airline. Never. I tell you Never again.”

The recovery flight path
Eight days after the stranding, the skies over Heathrow, and the rest of Europe again buzzed with streams of flight. Logistically and financially, all the airlines were still facing a nightmare. The disruption of carefully honed plane schedules around the globe all had to be reconfigured within hours. Over 17,000 flights had been canceled during those eight days, with loss estimates hovering around $2 billion.

Many tried to plug this financial hemorrhage by ignoring customers, furloughing staff, and waiting the volcano out. But Walsh put his first concern with his passengers. Retained customers are, after all, the best long-term investment. Additionally, Walsh passed this personal concern on to the entire British Airways team. And their passengers will not forget the concern.

As to the other airlines who made the bottom line their primary consideration, well, ignored passengers have long memories. It is very unlikely that all the expensive, glitzy ad campaigns which they budgeted as damage control will recover one passenger who was snubbed when the sky was falling.