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January 22, 2009

After the Crash: A Tale of Two Airlines


by Barbara S. Peterson

As divers prepare to raise the airplane engine of US Airways flight 1549 from the depths of the frozen Hudson River, the warm and fuzzy--if not saccharine--coverage of the "miracle" on the Hudson continues apace. Unless you've been on Mars, you know what I'm referring to. In the week after flight 1549 averted disaster and splashed down in the Hudson River minutes after taking off from LaGuardia, we've been treated to the christening of a hero--that would be Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, who scored invitations to the presidential inauguration and a key to New York City; hundreds of human interest stories about the remarkable crew and the passengers' bravery in getting off the plane in the frigid waters; a nod to the generosity of the airline--which cut a check of $5,000 for each passenger to compensate them for the inconvenience of waiting what might be months to get their bags back, and some very weird attempts to capitalize on the crash--such as shoe designer Kenneth Cole's billboard over Manhattan's West Side Highway, which today read: "In tough times, some land on their feet (others on the Hudson),"  and went on to thank everyone involved for "all you do."

One of the most unusual aspects of the story so far, however, has to be the admission by a lawyer at a well-known plaintiffs' law firm that there may be few if any lawsuits over US Airways flight 1549.

Okay, maybe only a misanthrope could object to the adulation over the incredible performance of the airline and crew--and the fact that a flock of birds likely incapacitated the plane's two engines, deflecting the blame that would normally be directed at the airline or the airplane manufacturer. But it's worth noting that until all the facts are known--and it may take months--it's premature to speculate on the precise cause of the crash, and the aircraft reportedly had experienced engine trouble before. Besides, aviation professionals typically object to the "miracle" label, preferring instead to see a fatality-free accident as the culmination of years of training and hard work. It's worth noting, too, that the flight attendants aboard all had decades of experience aloft, a refreshing reminder that they are safety professionals first, not airborne waitstaff.

Only a few weeks ago we were treated to another spectacle of a plane crash in which everyone got off alive, but this wasn't a clear-cut good-news story like last week's. In Denver on the evening of December 20, Continental Airlines flight 1404 aborted takeoff in snowy weather and slid down a ravine, bursting into flames. Passengers escaped on the emergency chutes (which were transformed into rubber rafts in last week's accident) and while 38 of the 115 aboard landed in the hospital, most got off with little or no injury.  But questions were immediately raised about the pilots' decision to abort and how they handled the crash landing. And just last week the first lawsuit was filed by Houston attorney Jason Gibson, on behalf of two passengers, Melissa Craft and Emily Pellegrini, who werent happy with the way the airline handled the survivors. According to a report in the Houston Chronicle: "Both Craft and Pellegrini, who do not know each other, told Gibson they were unsatisfied with the way Continental treated them after the crash. Craft lost expensive ski gear and jewelry the airline has not compensated her for; Pellegrini was given money to replace her lost belongings, but Continental sent an employee to supervise her shopping, Gibson said."

Continental has responded by calling the suit "premature" (indeed, attorneys are barred by law from soliciting crash victims until 45 days following an airline accident). And lest anyone thinks US Airways is attempting to buy off passengers by quickly rushing out its checks, the airline did include a disclaimer with the money that it wouldn't bar fliers from going to court later on if they choose.

Imagine an accident of this magnitude without any lawsuits--now that would be the miracle.

Further reading:
* NTSB preliminary report on Continental Flight 1404
* On the Fly: The airline industry


Continental Airlines could certainly learn a lot from US Air on how to handle an unfortunate situation like this.

True, but the USAirways accident was a fluke and after all, you can't exactly file a lawsuit against a flock of birds. Continental, it should be noted, did send out letters to everyone involved too. But the Denver accident was not a clear-cut good news event -- few are.

On his marketing blog, Dr. Tantillo named US Airways last week's brand winner for focusing on 'core brand essentials' such as security concerns (for employing someone like Sullenberger).

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