Last week there was a "clear the sky" incident affecting all of Switzerland. It turned out that a component in the air traffic control system was defective and the back-up was not working correctly. Eventually the problem was resolved and there was no danger for passengers and the population at any time.
Which lessons can we learn from this situation for crisis management? Which elements of this crisis management process apply to other organizations as well? What are critical factors, and how can we best prepare for emergencies?
So, what were the specific steps which were taken during this incident? These steps can also serve as a model for other organizations in the preparation and management of crises:
⏰ A system alarm occurred early in the morning and the person in charge was able to directly access the prepared checklist and systematically check all relevant points. The supervisor classified the situation as threatening and alerted the crisis team.
⏰ The crisis team met and, based on the information available at that point, decided on the extreme scenario "Clear the Sky" - i.e. Swiss airspace was closed to air traffic. This could be done so quickly because the crisis had already been anticipated in terms of scenarios, with the appropriate procedures.
⏰ Priorities were clearly defined. In aviation, it is clear that safety is the top priority. All other aspects, such as punctuality or efficiency, must take a back seat to safety. Everyone knows this and everyone acts accordingly.
⏰ By the time the first overseas flights reached Switzerland, they were diverted to foreign airports. Meanwhile, the crisis team re-evaluated the situation every 30 minutes to be able to react adequately and immediately. All relevant areas need to be represented in the crisis team, so that all important aspects are considered when assessing the situation.
⏰ Already 3.5 hours after the first warning, the technical problem could be solved. But only after a further half-hour stabilization phase it was certain that everything was working reliably and error-free. Safety first.
⏰ Finally, the systems were brought back up and the complex dismantling of the many delays and detours was started. 6.5 hours after the first warning, operations had returned to normal. In other words, after the acute crisis phase has been completed, there must then follow a phase of controlled transition (recovery) to normal operations.
In summary, there are several important elements that enabled those responsible to resolve this critical situation without any dangerous incidents occurring: rigorous preparation, clear priorities, clear procedures and a dedicated crisis team. These procedures must be well practiced beforehand in order to then function smoothly in a high-stress situation.
I would therefore recommend every organization to think about scenarios and which actions to take well in advance. Preparation for emergencies requires three steps:
📋 Business Impact Analysis (identifying risks, potential scenarios, evaluation according to probability of occurrence and severity of consequences)
📋 Definition of the Measures to be taken (both actions before the event as well as actions during the event)
📋 Preparation including process documentation, system preparation, information, and training.
This air surveillance case shows that when a crisis occurs, no time is available to discuss how one might proceed or who should perhaps be informed. Then quick, targeted decisions and rapid reactions are necessary.
No one wants to be caught unprepared in a crisis. Is your organization prepared?