It’s a holiday cliché. The car is packed, the boot is full, the journey is under way – and then there is a flat tyre. Luggage is piled on the hard shoulder until the spare wheel is finally unearthed.

It happened to me last week. Except that it was a plane not a car, and I don’t think they keep the spare wheel under the luggage. The plane was fully loaded and ready to go, until suddenly it wasn’t. There would be a short delay, they eventually said, which turned out to be two hours until we finally started moving. It was a bit irritating, but not the end of the world. But just as it’s not the lie, but the cover up, so it’s not the problem but the communication.

The blow by blow account would be tedious to write and even more tedious to read. It was ten minutes past the scheduled departure time before there was any mention of a delay. Twenty minutes after that was the first description of the problem and a forecast of an hour’s further delay. More than an hour later, it was going to take a further twenty minutes. Half an hour later, we finally got going. Updates ranged from the mildly disconcerting (“passengers can stay on board while wheels are being changed, but shouldn’t move about too much, in case the changing weight distribution destabilises the plane”) to the downright bizarre (“I’d like to give you an update, but I can’t because the people doing the work are outside the plane and we don’t have any way of communicating with them, but if I happen to see one of them, I’ll ask them how much longer they expect to be”).

What was really striking, though, was less the content, and much more the tone and attitude. Each announcement was disengaged and perfunctory: there were formulaic words of apology, but no empathy, no recognition that plans were being disrupted and time being wasted. There was no sense of responsibility being taken, of people recognising that they were speaking on behalf of the organisation, rather than as bystanders of a process in which they played no part. Keeping passengers informed was a chore to be endured, not an opportunity to engage and reassure.

There’s a really basic lesson there for any organisation. It ought to be really obvious and simple, but somehow it isn’t

And if you are reading this in the hope of finding out how actually to change the wheel on an Airbus, this might be a better place to start.

Picture by Andy Mitchell, licensed under creative commons BY-SA


  1. Great Post, Public Strategist! And a Happy New Year to you. I imagine keeping the public informed is very much seen as a chore that none of the team are keen to embrace. The situation is probably not improved by the fact that the communicating team feel that no one has really thought about how to keep them informed. Also it probably feels like they have their customers captive at least for the short term :-)

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