The other day I experienced a flight cancellation. Kate and I were flying from London to Vienna. Or so we thought. After a multiple hour period of uncertainty our flight was cancelled. Not good.

Unbeknownst to us, a hole was found in the main runway at Gatwick airport requiring diversion of a large number of inbound flights stopping many outbound flights.  We spent a total of 11 hours at the airport and eventually found our way to Heathrow to connect with another flight the following day. To say it was a bad day at the office for the airlines and airport, would be an understatement! Frankly, it was a pretty bad day for us too.

As the saying goes “sh** happens”. It is how you react to it (and have prepared for it) that is important.

British Airways did some things well and some very poorly and I think there are two great lessons for anyone in business:

  1. When something goes wrong, get on the front foot with your communication.
  2. Have a plan B – consider what could go wrong and how you will respond if it does.


Initially the flights board in the lounge said the flight had been delayed for an hour. Then it showed “Boarding Now” so we dashed to the gate only to find the plane was not there. Eventually there was an announcement that said there was damage to the runway and our plane had not been able to land and we could expect further delays so return to the main terminal and await further updates.

Of course our flight was only one of many that was cancelled and it was obvious to see the full range of human reactions. Some people got really angry and yelled at the airline team members – who of course had no control over the situation – but here’s the thing – it seemed to me they were poorly briefed themselves. You can only communicate well with your clients, if you are communicating well with your team. BA got part of this right – we (eventually) received a text advising of the cancellation and that we were booked on a flight the following day. The problem was that when we followed the instructions to accept the new flight we got an error message.

If something goes wrong in your dealings with clients communicate early and often and with as much clarity as possible. Acknowledge the bad situation. Make it clear what you are doing to address it and what the client can do, if that is appropriate.

Have a Plan B

The notion of planning for problems is not just limited to client facing matters. As part of sound business planning consideration of risks and how to minimise the likelihood of occurrence and any impact in the event of an occurrence, is essential. That is a topic much bigger than this brief article but see below a few comments.

In the case of BA it would seem obvious that a major risk for them would be the cancelling of flights – for many different reasons. Thus we would expect a well-oiled process to respond. In practice it is a little more complicated than in theory – but it still should be very doable to have a system that does Y if X happens and B if A happens. For reasons I’m not aware of, this was clearly not the case and as customers we have a very poor experience. Don’t let this happen to your clients.

In the context of professional firm consulting here are three key things to contingency plan for:

  • Not meeting a deadline
  • The client not being happy with your work / you make a mistake
  • Team member absences

What are you doing in respect of each of these?

And don’t kid yourself – inevitably you will have to face each of these at some stage.

PS I received an email today from British Airways asking for their feedback about how they handled the situation I described. I will make it very clear they should have done much better.