Lately, the news has been flooded with instances of malfunctioning planes and emergency landings. Just last week, a Southwest plane lost part of its roof mid-flight. Instances such as these often leave passengers extremely frightened.

Delays also seem to be at an all time high. While they pale in comparison to emergency landings, delays leave customers disgruntled.

In either case, communication goes a long way.

Recently I was reminded of this as a passenger on a plane that was prepared for an emergency crash landing. I travel a lot, and I’ve never heard a noise so unusual upon take off – I knew there was something wrong.

Being seated in the exit row, I was one of the first to get confirmation that that noise was indeed the landing gear failing … What?! The flight attendant told us that it was “likely that we were going to land on our belly and that upon impact, we’d probably need to open the exit doors.”

I don’t think I need to tell you how frightened I was. For about 10 minutes we prepared for this crash. Those 10 minutes felt like an hour. I won’t get into the details – the short ending of the story is that we landed at Dulles with functioning landing gear – greeted by 15 or so emergency vehicles. Phew!

Now, here’s the detail I do want to get into: the communication.

I was completely impressed with the flight attendants and the captain. From the minute we spoke to the flight attendant until the moment  we landed, I felt informed. Expectations were set realistically, and I was comforted by the captain reassuring us that they were using their checklists. (That may not have comforted everyone, but having read ”The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande and implementing many checklists in my every day in Event Planning, it made me feel better!) The bottom line – communication was key. It helped a cabin full of people remain calm when there could have been chaos.

Looking back on the experience, I was reminded of how important it is to communicate with your participants. Especially when something goes wrong and safety is compromised. When I have been faced with adversity in events (I’ve had my share of thunderstorms and cold rainy weather throughout my years in the business), the first thing I do is put myself in the customer’s shoes. I ask the questions: What would I want to know right now? What do the participants need to know for safety reasons? How can I make them comfortable?

This sounds kind of simple, but my guess is that those flight attendants and captain were asking those same questions.

Now here’s where the story goes sour. Once we landed, my customer experience was the complete opposite: no communication. We were uninformed as to what we should do. They gave us a phone number to call to re-book our flights. You would think that the agents on the phone would know about the incident and would be even more sensitive to their customer’s needs. But this was not the case. I was disappointed. (And furthermore, I didn’t get a letter acknowledging the situation for more than two weeks. When that letter finally came, it completely missed the mark).

So, while I felt taken care of in the air, my experience on the ground left a bad taste in my mouth. Had they taken care of us properly on the ground, my perspective would have been different.

Next time you are presented with a situation that could potentially alter the experience of your participants, I encourage you to put yourself in their shoes and ask the questions: Are they informed? Are they safe? Are they comfortable?

You’d be amazed how answering those with a “yes” can go a long way.

Photo by Sarah Coniglio. “Over The Wing” – from a much less chaotic flight.

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