FACING FLAK

Lufthansa's Crisis Manager of the Year

Spohr imago
Keeping his head when all around him are losing theirs.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Europe’s biggest airline emerged stronger after the March crash, says the author, who lauds Lufthansa’s chief executive Carsten Spohr as crisis manager of the year.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed March 24, 2015, in southern France. It was later determined that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally flew the plane into a mountain.
    • The parent company’s chief executive moved quickly to cancel big celebrations planned for Lufthansa’s 60th anniversary in the month after the tragedy.
    • Lauda Air Flight 004 crashed in Thailand May 26, 1991, killing 223. Niki Lauda, the former Formula One racing champion, was owner and chief executive of the airline.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

When Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed March 24 in the French Alps, Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr proved himself a capable crisis manager. I know exactly the kind of challenges a chief executive faces in such extraordinary situations.

In 1991 I was owner and head of Lauda Air when one of our planes, a Boeing 767-300ER, crashed after takeoff from Bangkok to Vienna.

The worst disaster in Austrian aviation history killed 223 people after the thrust reverser activated in flight due to an error in building the plane.

The most important in such a catastrophe is not to react, but to act. When news media speculate and spread rumors, the human and business catastrophe grows even bigger.

The most important in such a catastrophe is not to react, but to act. When news media speculate and spread rumors, the human and business catastrophe grows even bigger.

Just after the Germanwings crash, which killed 150, Mr. Spohr let himself be driven by the media. Then, however, he quickly took command himself. And that was exactly the right decision. From that moment, he did everything right.

Most important after such an accident is to explain quickly to families of the victims what caused the tragedy. Parent company Lufthansa was slow at first with this information, but then Mr. Spohr took over.

He explained the cause – namely that the co-pilot intentionally caused the descent of the Airbus A320-211, and even sped up before crashing into a mountain. He also visited the crash site in the southern French municipality of Prads-Haute-Bléone.

When Lauda Air Flight 004 crashed May 26, 1991, I traveled to the site in Thailand on the first day, in order to personally get a picture of the catastrophe. As soon as I had information about the cause, I went to the public in order to suppress speculations by the media.

In such a situation, no company spokesperson can handle that alone: It is up to the chief executive to explain why the disaster occurred, and Mr. Spohr did that correctly.

For such catastrophes, there is no off-the-shelf plan. As chief executive, you must approach it with your own logic: A chief executive’s true leadership qualities emerge in such situations.

The people most affected need accurate information as quickly as possible. Only then can the suffering of survivors be reduced. In such situations, a courageous and smart approach by the chief executive is demanded, regardless of legal questions.

Only the truth helps to take away the shock. It is important to completely explain the tragedy. Otherwise, no one — victims’ relatives, company employees or its leaders — will be able to find peace.

A tragedy like the intentional Germanwings crash would be a deep shock for any airline’s chief executive. The Lauda Air crash 24 years ago was the biggest misfortune of my life. It is not easy to get over that.

Like Mr. Spohr, I could fly the airplane myself and was 100 percent convinced that the machine was absolutely safe, if pilots and technicians did nothing wrong. I would never have imagined that there could be a construction error. In the case of Germanwings, the actual cause of the tragedy was surely beyond the imagination of the Lufthansa chief executive.

In the Germanwings crash, Mr. Spohr quickly drew the right conclusions and took the right steps. That distinguishes him in the European aviation industry. For instance, he moved quickly to cancel big celebrations that were planned for Lufthansa’s 60th anniversary in the month after the tragedy.

The Lufthansa chief also proved himself as a company driver by restructuring the airline in a difficult competitive situation. He was not deterred by pilot strikes over collective agreements and is now correcting an aberration, which his predecessors at Lufthansa allowed under pressure from unions.

His predecessors did not recognize that costs had to be better managed because of competition from low-cost carriers and Gulf airlines. Mr. Spohr saw that at the last minute and is now rerouting Lufthansa. He is looking for solutions with pilots and flight personnel. It is laughable, for example, when employee representatives discuss retirement at 55. Every professional pilot can fly at least until age 65.

Mr. Spohr created a cheaper platform with the Eurowings subsidiary and is trying to win back lost market share. That is the correct strategy, even if it is more expensive for Lufthansa in the short term. His employees should finally recognize that the aviation market has changed — and that their boss is taking the right steps.

 

To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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