Atlanta Airport Crisis: The Communication Imperative

Total and abject failure,” “embarrassing,”  and a “scene from the Walking Dead” were all words that graced websites and social media platforms in response to the recent, 11-hour power outage at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta—since leaving over 1,000 flights cancelled at the nation’s busiest airport. As a global traveler personally stranded during the outage, as well as North Highland’s National Transportation Lead, this event is a textbook case of what not to do in managing transportation crises. Ultimately, it’s a case that offers insight into how transportation entities can more effectively apply crisis and reputation management best practices when facing comparable incidents.

The recent airport crisis joins the March I-85 bridge collapse and this week’s fatal Amtrak crash as a poignant reminder for the industry: infrastructure is a high-risk asset in an age when safe, seamless, and reliable experiences are an unconditional expectation. Unforeseen and often uncontrollable circumstances—anything from a routine traffic jam to, in this case, a destructive fire—pose an ongoing threat to the stability that consumers expect from transportation entities. As social and technology trends transform transportation as we know it, consumers, at the minimum, expect safety, reliability, and mobility from their airports, roadways, and seaports.

This airport incident is undoubtedly a failure on the fronts of safety, reliability, and mobility, and it’s possible to unpack the preventive strategies that would have mitigated Hartsfield-Jackson’s operational risks. However, as we confront a crisis that has already occurred, the larger failure lies in the airport’s approach to managing the outage. After power was lost, we were all left to our own devices, receiving zero communication from the airport. In addition, the failure of the existing cell network prevented us from making and receiving calls with family stranded, or sending texts to find out further information.  From the moment we landed in Atlanta, I sat on the plane for three hours and eventually exited the back stairwell of the plane stairs. After walking to the terminal, there was no instruction around how to locate friends and family, how to leave the airport, whether MARTA (Atlanta’s public transportation system) was running, how to reach a ride-share service, or make a hotel reservation – among countless other missed communication opportunities. Along with a group of thousands of people, I walked toward baggage, only to be blocked upon attempting to exit. While the baggage claim area was pitch black, I fortunately had my phone flashlight and found the MARTA entrance on my own. Amidst the chaos, crowds, and rush that ensued, I lost the colleagues with whom I’d been travelling. At a minimum, Hartsfield-Jackson could have provided temporary cell boosters that would enable stranded passengers to connect with loved ones and offer general direction around where to go. And if Chick-fil-A, known for being closed on Sundays, could show up on the Sunday of the outage with CEO Dan Cathy serving sandwiches, the airport could certainly have provided shelf-stable snacks and water to sustain travelers during this prolonged period of distress.

In enduring this incident—and in working with airports, state departments of transportation, transit agencies, and seaports in my daily work—this event illuminates several best practices when it comes to organizational crisis management in transportation:

  • Rapid and transparent response: organizations should anticipate passenger’s concerns with prompt, proactive communication around the crisis that transpired, as well as the steps being taken to address it. Even without power, the airport could, at minimum, have sent personnel to deliver messages verbally. While an inefficient and painstaking exercise, doing so would have demonstrated a commitment to the transparency needed to restore relationships with anxiety-ridden travelers. In addition, proactive communication would have enhanced passenger safety with clear guidance on where to go and how to exit the airport safely.
  • It’s okay to not have all the answers: passengers understand that you may not have all the answers. Crisis stories are notoriously complex and continually evolving. Details, particularly around causation and responsibility, can change as organizations are in the process of fact-finding. The cause of the fire that led to the outage is still unknown. The onus is on the airport to continually acknowledge the details that it has, and has not yet, confirmed – and commit to providing further detail to the public as it becomes available.
  • Continue the discussion: all crises come to an end, and that’s when ongoing, post-incident communication is especially critical. It’s key to think about the aftermath and proactively communicate with those impacted about next steps. Recent Facebook posts indicate that many stranded passengers have spent hours searching for luggage in the wake of the outage. Hartsfield-Jackson can use FAQ documents, social media engagement, and a centralized help line as channels of communication to repair reputation and passenger relationships in the coming days and weeks.

With seamless, connected transportation experiences being a norm and expectation today, the recent airport outage has undoubtedly been a stark failure on this front. As the airport focuses now on managing the operational aftermath and rebuilding relationships with wary passengers, there are several key communication principles that can accelerate the airport’s path to recovery – and offer insight for other transportation entities.