Takeaways before Taking-Off

Stan Heist/2015

When you spend as much time on the road as I do, you realize that airline travel is really a series of well coordinated movements. From check-in agents, through security, gate agents, baggage handlers, flight attendants and pilots, everyone has a precise role in this highly choreographed routine. So, when things get out of sync, it doesn’t take long for passengers to grow impatient.

Here are three lessons about leadership communication witnessed while experiencing an exceptionally odd flight delay in Phoenix. Let’s call it the “Takeaways, Before Taking-off edition. 

First, the story:

After attending an event at Arizona State University I was to fly to Columbus for a regional training. Everything looked good for an on-time departure from Sky Harbor. I boarded the plane and took my seat, 24 F, way in the back of the cabin.


Did I mention I usually don’t fly this particular airline? In fact, this carrier isn’t even my “second choice”—but when you’re taking a late afternoon flight from Phoenix to Columbus, you book whatever will get you in before midnight.

Once everyone boarded the plane, fought their way for every inch of overhead space and buckled their seat belts, the captain got on the overhead speaker, and said something along the lines of this:

Folks, this is the captain speaking. I’m sorry to tell you this, but maintenance did a walk around on the plane and noticed a leak in the hydraulic line. That’s about a 2-hour fix. That’s the bad news. The good news is, we found you another plane—at gate B24. So, we’re going to ask you to gather your things and meet us over at B24, and we’ll get on the way to Columbus.

There were a few grumbles in the back, but mostly my seat mates handled it in stride. “Well, at least we won’t have to wait two hours” one quipped. So together, we schlepped our way from gate A6 all the way to the very end of the B concourse to B24. Once there we waited as the pilots and the flight attendants had to close up the first aircraft, make that same hike, and prep the second aircraft before we could board. Total wait about 40 minutes.

Once called, everyone politely boarded the second plane, again squeezing our luggage into similarly cramped overhead spaces. We buckled up, watched our pre-flight safety briefing, and pushed away from the gate, toward the taxiway…

and pause

…standing by patiently

…on the edge of the taxiway

…for what seems just a bit too long. 

Then, we push forward (whew), but instead of turning left toward the runway, head right and cross over to the other end of the terminal building. And again, the Captain got on the overhead speaker and said something like this:


(audible sigh)

Folks, I’m really sorry to tell you this. There is a problem with our number 2 navigation computer—we can’t get it to reset. The good news is that maintenance can bring another computer over. We have found a gate, and once we park, they will send someone over to help us out. 

Then, the captain continued…. 

We have three navigation computers on board, but we need two of them to be operational at all times. So, we can’t take off with any of them down in case one has a problem during the flight. It will take about 20 minutes to repair; then we’ll need to fill out some maintenance logs before we can get on our way. I know this is a bad way to end your day, it’s a bad way to start ours. We’ll do our best to make up the time, but we are sorry for the inconvenience.

At this point, the flight attendants gave us some pretzels and water, allowed anyone who wanted to get up, get up. And guess what—people were pretty civil. Once the repair was done, the lead flight attendant took to the speaker and thanked us for our patience. Then, she explained that while it may seem odd, they’re required by law to do the safety briefing once again before taking off.

Finally—2 hours after our initial departure time—we took off from PHX.  And although I won’t change my airline of choice because our home airport is a hub, I now have a new second favorite carrier.

So–how did they win my loyalty despite all of the inconvenience? Here are the 3Things the crew did just right:

  1. The entire team was direct, open and transparent in their communication. The captain took the time to fully explain what was going on as soon as he knew definitively. He was clear, direct, and set expectations by giving us a realistic timeline. The flight attendants made sure we were comfortable and never felt trapped. Everyone always remained “on stage” and professional throughout the entire process. 
  1. The captain positioned the flight team as experiencing the event with the passengers. Let’s face it—this was no fun for the crew either. When the captain said “I know this is a bad way to end your day, it’s a bad way to start ours” he effectively acknowledged that it is an inconvenience for all without being whiney or shirking responsibility. He turned the situation from an “us vs. them” (passengers vs. the airline) into “we’re all in this together.” 
  1. The crew took their core-responsibility seriously. Airlines are in the transportation business, but their core responsibility is safety. That’s why they do pre-flight inspections which discover critical leaks and have computers with backups to their backups. And when the flight attendants repeated the safety drill they noted that although it may seem odd, there was a significant purpose for doing so. Therefore, it didn’t feel like a rote exercise but proved to us that they took their core responsibility seriously.

So…how can we apply these 3 things to our everyday communication and leadership? Use the contact button to share your ideas.

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