In May 2010, an aircraft of one of Centrecom’s clients crashed on approach to the Airport with the loss of 103 passengers and crew. There was only one (1) survivor.
The Airline client had no crisis centre and no crisis management plan. Moreover, their staff did not have the language skills to handle the calls expected from the relatives of their passengers, nor from the press who were to call in from around the world. Given the severity of the event, very high call volumes were anticipated. Multiple communication channels were required, and the telecommunications network in Tripoli had not been tested for such a surge. The Airline client did not expect to be able to cope with the disaster locally. The Airline client notified Centrecom of the incident at 07:45am, requesting us to handle the overflow of calls hitting the airline’s emergency service number.
Centrecom accepted instructions from its client and swiftly rearranged the duties of its agents on duty. Within 10 minutes the briefing of agents who would be handling the airline’s calls had been conducted. A script provided by the airline was given to agents so they could give preliminary advice to callers wanting information about the incident. By 08:00am the agents on duty for that morning were at their workstations ready to take the influx of calls. The lines were activated and the floodgate opened. Centrecom’s IT team swung into action to provide the client with more channels, to cater for the expected surge in calls over the next few hours. The HR function sent out the call to action and off-duty agents were brought in from other projects and other shifts.
Within 45 minutes a designated Emergency Response Room (ERR) had been set up located on Centrecom’ premises and those agents assigned to handle the airline client’s calls were transferred into it from the call centre floor. This measure was taken partly to guarantee absolute focus on the difficult task in hand, but also to ensure that sensitive information such as the Passenger Name List (PNL), would remain in a contained environment.
Information and communication then became the top priorities. Constant liaison with the Client was required to maintain an up-to-the minute picture of the situation in Tripoli. This data was then transformed into carefully crafted statements intended to minimise panic, maintain a calm and measured approach to a very delicate and potentially distressing situation. It was vitally important that agents did not elaborate or volunteer opinions or information. Only the script approved by the client could be communicated. Under such circumstances these constraints, although correct, added considerable stress to the agents’ duties.
As service hours and duty rosters were extended throughout the day, additional resources were called in to ensure that agents were relieved from their duties frequently, to safeguard their mental health and to maintain control over increasing stress levels. Agents were also provided with support from a psychotherapist throughout the day, and during debriefing sessions following the incident.
In parallel with the influx of calls from distressed relatives and friends, members of the press who had been unable to contact the airline’s headquarters began using the airline’s helpline to source information. Although understandable, this was quite unacceptable. The press were giving additional information to contact centre agents which the client was not ready to make public. The potential to contaminate the messages being given by agents to next of kin became very real, so press callers needed to be segregated. In order to filter calls and to prioritise the ones made by next of kin, members of the press were directed to update themselves via the airline’s website.
During conversations, agents collected the details of details of the next of kin and initially forwarded them to the client, so that they would be able to contact family members and advise them of the arrangements for them to travel to Tripoli. However, given the multitude of tasks they faced, when it became clear that the client’s team could not cope with the volume, they instructed Centrecom to call back the family members of victims, advising them of such travel arrangements.
None of the Centrecom team members had prior experience in handling such a crisis, however throughout the course of the day the team handled 631 inbound calls from next of kin and members of the press, in a calm, controlled and efficient manner, showing empathy with the family of victims and polite assertiveness with the press.
Following the incident a detailed report on steps taken throughout the day and suggested improvements in the development of the airline’s Crisis Centre Service were delivered to the client. The CEO of the Airline acknowledged the invaluable help offered by the Centrecom Team.
The majority of the passengers’ on-board the flight were Dutch and when the airline emergency number could not handle the language requirements of both next of kin and press, Centrecom’s multi-lingual capability became a real advantage, resulting in clear communication at a time when the potential for pandemonium was very real.
Losing a plane and the lives of over 100 passengers could only ever have a negative impact on the overall image and brand reputation of an airline. However, at such times, the way in which a disaster is handled becomes paramount in constraining the consequential damage of such an event.
Centrecom provided the airline with an immediate response, a dynamic uplift in capability, an evolving and flexible charter of duties and a crisis communications centre that performed with aplomb. Through its relationship with Centrecom, the airline was seen by the world to have delivered the highest level of support by responding to inbound calls in the shortest period of time possible.
By relieving the airline of these duties those valuable personnel were able to focus on the many other urgent matters and escalating priorities. Under trying circumstances the airline’s brand was protected, its customers’ needs were served selflessly and every step was taken to maintain the company’s reputation and customer loyalty.
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