When landings give you lemons…

On Monday evening a Southwest Airlines flight from Nashville to New York touched down at LaGuardia. Then the sparks flew. The nose gear collapsed on roll-out, the airplane skidded to a stop, and all hell did not break loose. I repeat, nothing much happened.

That same evening the ABC affiliate in the city reported that all the passengers were safe, although a handful were shaken up a bit. Specifically, the Port Authority, which has domain over the transit systems in the city, was reporting four people suffered anxiety attacks. The FAA was referred to in initial reports, too. Their comment was that the airplane had landed and come to a safe stop on the pavement.

Why was this incident such a non-event? Why would an airplane with a collapsed nose-gear not become a major story in the wake of the Asiana crash in San Francisco, the commuter crash in Alaska, and all the other bumps and bruises reported as if they major disasters in the making? Two reasons: One, there were no fatalities, thank goodness. Second, Southwest tweeted the information about the incident themselves. They put out the news quickly, accurately, and with dignity.

Southwest actually did the responsible thing. They reported an issue to their customers, their detractors, the general public, and anyone else with an Internet connection. On the same evening the incident took place, they posted on Facebook enough facts for a full blown news story on any television, radio, or press outlet in the land.

The facts as presented by Southwest were: “Flight 345. Nashville to New York’s LaGuardia. Incident occurred at 5:40 p.m. Eastern time. Boeing 737-700. Nose gear collapse on landing. One-hundred-fifty passengers and crew on board. All passengers have been deplaned and transferred to the terminal. Initial reports suggest five passengers and three crew are being treated for injuries. Southwest is cooperating. The NTSB has been notified.”

With the exception of including actual names of passengers and crew, this is about as complete an accident report you can give in a news release generated for the public at large. It is brief, factual, verifiable, and truly informative.

What it is not is incendiary, inflammatory, evasive, or irresponsible. In short, it is all anyone in the aviation industry could hope to achieve in the face of an accident or incident that will undoubtedly receive coverage from traditional media outlets, albeit inaccurate coverage filled with conjecture, errors, and misinformation if the trend holds true.

Clearly someone at Southwest has learned from the old adage, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. They did. Good for them. Good for all of us, frankly.

This event brought to mind a potentially more serious scenario that occurred at a flight school I flew for in central Connecticut years ago. The engine of a Cessna 152 failed in mid-lesson. The student was on her second lesson, ever. No doubt, she was neither prepared for the sound of silence, or appreciative of the sudden increase in fuel economy her trainer was getting as it glided down to an earth covered in lovely green trees. Just trees, not much else.

The instructor was a truly talented pilot who trained seriously and kept his wits. He found a highway off ramp to shoot for, and he headed in that direction. He kept his student calm, ran through the checklists, and made a beautiful emergency landing on a highway ramp that was neither flat nor straight. Some sheet metal was crumpled, no injuries occurred. The student even chose to continue with her training after a short respite.

What was similar was that when television crews and reporters arrived at the airport, spurred on by reports of mayhem on their scanners, they found the instructor patiently explaining the situation as calmly and coherently as it could be relayed to them. He did a masterful job. The owner of the flight school made no attempt to hide the instructor or send him away. He did not hide behind a locked door and shout through it that a comment would be released at a later time. They faced the reality of what happened, conducted themselves as true professionals, and turned a story into a non-story in short order.

Integrity sounds as if it would be easy to achieve, but it’s not. When the pressure is on, the media is banging on the door, and family members want to know what’s going on – it can be hard to ‘fess up, state the facts, and let the chips fall as they may.

My old flight school did it, and I’m forever grateful for the standard they set. Southwest did it, and they found literally thousands of Facebook followers who shared comments of confidence in and appreciation for the company’s candor in the face of pressure.

Imagine if we all conducted our business as openly, as honestly, and as straightforwardly as these two examples. Perhaps aviation wouldn’t have the boogeyman-like reputation it continues to be stigmatized by in so many circles.


  1. Kimberly Bush says

    Jamie, this is a reminder (to me) of a scene from “The American President”. The one I am talking about is Micheal J Fox stridently insisting to Micheal Douglas and Martin Sheen how ‘the people hunger for information”. In the absence, they will conjecture and gossip.
    I did some family tree research a few years ago, looking at old newspapers from the 1940’s. There was an aviation-related item on nearly every front page. Of course some of them were about pilots having a drunken crash. Of course some of them were about empty fuel tank crashes.
    But there were plenty about watching the skies for the birds that had more substance.

  2. Steve says

    There’s still a question, though: Of those who received the succinct and accurate reporting, how many have even a vague concept of nose gear? Oh yeah, it’s that little wheel at the front of the airplane … and because it’s so little, this must be the reason it failed. The overall problem, besides the sensationalizing of what otherwise would be menial news, is the “dumbing down” of our society as a whole. After a 35-year career in journalism, I always kept in mind the advice of writing to the average eighth-grader. Now, I’m thinking we’ve degenerated toward reporting to the third-grade level.

  3. Lee Ensminger says

    Jamie, you’re right. It was a nose gear failure that was handled well by the professional crew on board. A non-event. Remember, however, that if the news media can’t sensationalize it, we might discover that we really don’t need them. Sayings like, “If it bleeds, it leads,” and “If it isn’t bad news, it’s not news” have been the motivation for “journalism” for quite some time.

  4. David Abbey says

    Jamie, great observations on how WN handled the LGA incident. I just wanted to point out that the Port Authority isn’t in charge of most of NY Transit Systems. The Port Authority operates the major airports, some rail connecting NY and NJ, and some container ports. Most public transportation in NY Metro Area (not including NJ) is under the auspices of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

    David Abbey

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