Airport shutdown should lead to great outage discussions

By Suzanne Haggerty, Research Manager –

Atlanta may be the poster child for the saying “Go big or go home.”

You have to admit, we’ve had quite a year.

Our football team somehow squandered a 25-point lead to lose the 2017 Super Bowl.

In March, we managed to set loose a fire so hot that it caused a bridge on a major commuter artery to collapse, leading to weeks of worse-than-usual traffic (and that’s saying something for us) along with sorry, Elon Musk increased use of public transportation (temporarily, of course).

Now, in what is hopefully our last destructive act of the year, we’ve once again made national news after essentially shutting down the world’s busiest airport for nearly 12 hours on Sunday with a massive power outage. Alas, fire was once again the culprit.

As I watched the spectacle play out via Twitter Sunday afternoon, I realized that the situation had the potential to be the biggest communications debacle of the year. Mainly, I figured the airlines were about to bungle their messaging for hours, and that Georgia Power was going to get caught in the miscommunication crossfire.

Try as they might, airlines are often not as adept at customer communications as we want them to be. I’ve been on several planes that were CLEARLY going to arrive late, yet as we slowly taxied away from the gateway, those same planes were showing up as “on time” on the app. Folks waiting for our clearly late plane may have well been looking at their very own “on time” messages.

The husband and I have worked out ways to outsmart bad airline communications. Apps like FlightAware let us see where our flights are in real time (if we’re catching a plane from D.C. that hasn’t arrived in Chicago 30 minutes past its official ETA, for example, it’s definitely not getting to Atlanta on time, no matter what the airline app says, which is, invariably, “on time”).

You can imagine how bad customer communications were when the airlines really didn’t know when or if planes were going to be able to fly.

I don’t know why airline communications have to be so dysfunctional. It’s difficult, keeping all those planes in the air and all those people and their luggage moving around, and it’s 100% more difficult when you have neither electricity nor a crystal ball. I get it.

However, I also get that when you’ve been sitting on the tarmac for three hours without water or word on when you’ll be leaving, you start casting around for answers.

Georgia Power essentially had one customer without power on Sunday: the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. But they had literally thousands of people who were desperate for ETR information, which presumably would lead to ETD and ETA information.

Georgia Power worked closely with airport personnel throughout the day to restore power. The utility also kept its Twitter feed updated with the latest information. But they couldn’t give everyone what they wanted most, which was a glimpse into the future.

This is the kind of worst-case-scenario that I look forward to querying Chartwell’s Outage Communications Leadership Council about. This membership-based, utility-only group allows professionals to explore how to better communicate with customers, employees and other stakeholders during power outages.

While members gain access to historical and ongoing Chartwell research, the most interesting element of council membership, to me, is the discussion that goes on during our monthly phone calls and bi-annual meetings.

Council members aren’t just satisfied with discussing what’s currently happening in the industry — they want to figure out the future, and pave a way for their utilities to get there. And, given that outage communications is their focus, they’re prone to discussing worst-case-scenarios, things like hurricanes, snowstorms and catastrophic infrastructure fires (I mean, I am quite sure the group is about to talk about catastrophic infrastructure fires).

If you’d like to get in on this conversation, email Tim Herrick at therrick@chartwellinc.com. The council’s next meeting will be on June 5 in New Orleans, just before Chartwell’s 12th annual Outage Communications Conference kicks off.

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