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2001 JAPAN NEAR MID-AIR COLLISION: CRISIS



“The secret of crisis management is not good vs. bad; it’s preventing the bad from getting worse.”- Andy Gilman, President & CEO of Comm Core Consulting Group


31st January 2001 could have been one of the most catastrophic days in aviation history when two Japan Airlines (JAL) flights came dangerously close and avoided a near midair collision. Such an event is scary for all flight travelers but also for the organization whose flights are involved.

If God forbid, this situation would have occurred, Japan Airlines (JAL) would be having a crisis of epic proportions and it could have dangerous consequences for the company’s reputation, brand value, and finances besides the heartbreaking death toll which the company would have taken years to recover from.


This incident wakes us up to a reality that a crisis can occur without notice and we need to effectively plan for events like this because an organization may not ever recover from a crisis event.


In this blog we will be talking about how a crisis can develop by examining this instance of a near midair collision and examine the steps taken by Japan Airlines to mitigate this crisis and understand key learnings from this event.


WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED?

"I have never seen a plane fly so close," an unidentified passenger told the Japanese television network NHK. "I thought we were going to crash."


Two Japan airlines flights, one being a Boeing 747-400D and the other being McDonnel Douglas DC-10-40 escaped a near midair collision. The Boeing had 411 passengers and 16 members of crew onboard and the Douglas had 237 passengers and 13 crew members onboard. The number of passengers indicates the severity of the crisis that had unfolded and how close was the situation to a catastrophe.


Both the flights plan showed that the planes were supposed to cross paths, however with a separation of 2000 feet which is standard at altitudes above 29,000 feet. Source: Simpleflying


However, both flights started losing their separation, at this point Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) which is basically an automated system warning flight pilots on possibilities of a collision for both flights ordered the Boeing to climb and the Douglas to descend. There would have been no risk of collision had this instruction been followed, however the Boeing descended following the instructions of the Air Traffic Controller (ATC).


Due to this both planes came very close to collide and by performing a last-minute maneuver the collision was averted.


AFTERMATH OF THE INCIDENT AND JAL'S APOLOGY

"I express my deepest regrets,"- Japan Airlines Former Vice President Yasushi Yuasa


Around 81 passengers suffered minor injuries whereas 7 passengers suffered serious injuries on the Boeing. Luckily no passengers on the Douglas suffered any injuries. Both flights landed safely, and no deaths were caused due to the incident.

Needless to say, the incident must have caused tremendous trauma to passengers on both flights.


Japan Airlines demonstrated appreciable empathy by firstly acknowledging the passengers as the injured passengers received an apology on their messages whereas the uninjured passengers received an apology via mail.

JAL’s Vice President expressed his deepest regrets to all the passengers involved in this incident.


Based on the available facts how did Japan Airlines handle the situation? Firstly, before going into the handling of the crisis, it is important to understand what is a crisis?


As per ISO 22361:2022 standard which basically gives crisis management guidelines,

A crisis is an abnormal or extraordinary event or situation that threatens an organization or community and requires a strategic, adaptive, and timely response in order to preserve its viability and integrity.

The same standard defines, an incident is an “event or situation that can be, or could lead to, a disruption, loss, emergency, or crisis.

It is pretty clear an incident can lead to a crisis.


It is clear from the above definition that what JAL faced was a crisis as the lives of more than 500 people were at stake.


JAL handled the crisis in the best possible manner they could as they first acknowledged their faults by sending apology letters, which is a good start which shows the customer how important they are to the organization. The apologies emphasize the value of empathy and show that JAL executives are cognizant of the values needed to handle a crisis.


Secondly the expression of regret by the Vice President of JAL showed top management commitment for the safety of all passengers on JAL and renews not only customer confidence but investor confidence as well.


LEARNINGS FROM CRISIS

"It's fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure." - Bill Gates, Microsoft Founder


Leaving aside the mistake committed by the ATC, a critical question arose that if such a situation repeats where the ATC and the TCAS are giving conflicting instructions then what should the pilots do?


Could JAL have internally set guidelines on what to do in case of conflicting instructions? Had advanced crisis planning been done, could this situation have been avoided?


CRISIS PLANNING

“Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself. He imposes his own stamp of action, takes responsibility for it, makes it his own.” - Charles de Gaulle, Former president of France


In order to think of crisis situations and ways to combat them, it is important to think of situations which can have catastrophic consequences.

This situation of conflicting TCAS and ATC instructions, if it would have been addressed earlier maybe we would not have seen such a situation.

Organizations in any industry must be prepared to deal with such situations and must have effective brainstorming on the kinds of crisis situations which can be detrimental to the organization.

Imagine had JAL not sent the apology or acknowledged their faults, people would have lost faith in the organization and the company itself would have collapsed due to lack of customer confidence.

Passengers though must have been upset at the near collision however some amount of comfort must have been obtained seeing the response of JAL.


CONCLUSION

This incident teaches us how situations could quickly spiral out of control and why empathy is very important in dealing with such situations. It is just not enough to acknowledge a crisis but to the affected persons it is important to put ourselves in their place and feel for them.

JAL demonstrated good leadership and took immediate actions to restore customer confidence, which is one of the key components of handling a crisis.


Gorisco has a wide range of experts who are experienced in defining and designing various solutions to help organizations mitigate their risks and resolve their problems.

At Gorisco, our motto is 'Embedding Resilience,’ and we are committed to making the organizations and their workforce resilient. Reach out to us if you have any queries, clarifications, or need any support on your initiatives.

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