Mid Air Leadership Lessons

I was on a United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Paris last week. After a short and intense work week in the US, all I wanted to do was catch up on my sleep. It felt like only a few hours since our take off, when the attendant came up and straightened my seat and said we were landing. I felt confused, had I slept all through the 10.5 hours flight? Why does it look dark outside when we were to be landing morning hours in Paris? And when I looked at the watch, we had been airborne only 6+ hours, so how the hell were we landing so soon. Looking at my confusion, my co-passenger informed me that as there was an issue with the flight navigation system, we were landing in Washington D.C. We had no idea how long the wait would be.

A few minutes after getting off the aircraft we were given hotel, food and taxi vouchers along with boarding passes for next evening. Lugging our bags we all went to our respective hotels. Some changed their flights, others like me informed their associates in Paris about meeting time change, cancellations etc. I was exhausted after the ordeal. I had not heard positive things about United recently and this experience definitely made me wonder if I should fly the airline in the future.

Next day at the airport, all the faces looked familiar at the check in queue. The crew was the same on the aircraft. It was as if we had been in a time warp for the last 24 hours. A true déjà vu moment. About an hour after being airborne, the captain made an announcement saying that he would like to share the reasons for previous evening’s detour and asked those interested to tune into a special channel where one can hear the on goings in the cockpit. Many of us were curious to learn what had happened and why we had spent a day in D.C.

The Captain started by giving a background on the crew in the cockpit, the details of the kind of aircraft that was being used, the redundancies built in to manage malfunctions and emergencies etc. He then shared that they started observing some abnormalities in the flight control monitors after 4.5 hours flying. The monitors on the left side of the plane were showing different data from the right, which perplexed the crew. First it showed an electrical malfunction. Then a fuel leak. Soon they lost all the ability to auto pilot and were using manual navigation. After conferencing in all the various maintenance and operations, they established that there was no electrical problem or a fuel leak,  but there was certainly  a software failure, which was giving different information. This by itself was not an emergency, but definitely something that made them uncomfortable. The reason for the software failure was unclear. It was a potential risk when we were about to coast off over the Atlantic, so he decided it was better off landing some place than risking the journey.

The question next was, where to land? The flight was closest to Toronto and they did get a clearance. However, the team felt that it would not be the best base as they would have to depend on Air Canada for assistance. So the next choice was going to Chicago. This plan had to be aborted as O’Hare was already dealing with 2 planes with issues. The next choice was New Jersey. Here too they ran into issues on logistics, as there were no hotels with enough rooms to accommodate 269 passengers. Hence the choice to fly to D.C. which had the hotel space and the necessary ground support.

When he finished sharing all the details, he acknowledged that some of us on the flight may not agree with his decision. That he was aware, it had caused a lot of inconvenience to many. However he had to do this in the best interest of the safety of the passengers. At the end of his speech there was a quiet moment on the plane. I am sure everyone who heard him, said a thanks in gratitude for landing us safely.

I was personally touched by the Captain’s gesture of sharing all the information and learnt a few leadership lessons mid-air.

  1. Decision-making: Leadership means making decisions. You cannot avoid them. You may have some data, not all the data you need. You may have some options, may not be the ideal options. You may not please everyone, yet you need to take a decision. And only you can do it. Leading goes hand in hand with making decisions and taking responsibility for the consequences.
  2. Clear value system: When you have a clearly laid out value system, it guides your decision making. Safety was the most important value in this case and that became central to the decision making. It was not an emergency situation. Possibly nothing wrong would have happened. But the risk was in compromising the value of safety. When what you value is clear, you can make decisions guided by it.
  3. Transparency is key: Sharing the logic and the reasoning behind a decision, whether right or wrong, is difficult. But when you communicate openly, you get people on board with you. Everyone on that plane who heard the Captain speak, had a different appreciation for the job of a pilot and respect towards him for his sincerity. And I am personally not averse to United anymore.

While we got off that plane and went to our home or work or vacation, I know that the Captain and his team will be subjected to audits, and internal inquiries on the decision made. Remarks will be made on their performance. But whatever it is, for those 269 passengers on board that night, we couldn’t have asked for a better person at the cockpit! We couldn’t have witnessed a better demonstration of authentic leadership!

11 thoughts on “Mid Air Leadership Lessons”

  1. Hi Sangeeta,

    This is a very interesting article.

    You have highlighted some of the very key attributes of Leadership.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you Sangeetha! Well written. I would refer to this time and again, because , this clearly calls out one point, Values. And that, to me, caught my attention.

    1. Thanks Nalini for reading and commenting. I am glad that it resonated with you. We dont realise how much our values and what we truly stand for are seen through our actions.

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