Airline’s Response To Natural Disasters

An Interview With Mary Ruiz, GoCrisis Associate

GoCrisis Associate, Mary Ruiz, has first-hand experience with the impact of a major hurricane and its effect on impacted communities. She has been involved in several recovery efforts, especially the major hurricanes that impacted Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Islands in 2017. Ruiz said as hurricanes and other natural disasters become more frequent, airlines are becoming more involved in relief activates. Ruiz recently spoke with GoCrisis about her relief experience as an airline supervisor and gave advice to emergency managers and first responders on how to respond after a natural disaster. 

Q: Airlines are increasingly responding to incidents involving natural disasters. Why do you think that this is occurring?

A: We all know the global warming situation is getting worse. Unfortunately certain areas are not fully aware of the potential damage that can happen. When these disasters are happening in countries for the first time, many governments are not prepared, or they have a lack of experience in handling a recovery an effort. Airline emergency managers have the knowledge to manage breaking situations with emergencies, bringing a level of expertise to these kinds of situations.

Q: During your experience in the recovery work in Puerto Rico, what were some of the typical kinds of requests from first responders on the ground?

A: Puerto Rico is an island, so the only way on and off the island is by aircraft. My airline provided supplies and coordinated with relief organizations to transport more supplies and relief personnel to assist with the effort. We also evacuated people who could not stay in the country because of medical reasons. The first requests were for electric generators and food supplies, so airlines were extremely important because they served as the lifeline for battered communities.

Q: How did you manage a high stress situation in a scenario where most airlines don’t have the experience?

A: It was difficult, especially during the evacuation process.  Airlines had little information until the last minute regarding who would be one the aircraft, and much of the communication had to take place using satellite phones due to the lack of internet or telephone connectivity. One of the major obstacles was the inability to communicate the numerous manifest changes that were taking place at the station, as hundreds of evacuees were showing up for each aircraft departing the island. The airport was extremely crowded, the weather was hot and humid, there was no power and thus no air conditioning, and due to the sheer numbers, many people were forced to wait outside the terminal. Some were sleeping outside for days waiting to evacuate! In time, officials where were able to better organize new procedures, install satellite equipment, and prepare passengers lists along with much-needed supplies from inbound flights.

Q: Do you think an emergency manager should prepare action steps in their emergency plan to handle relief requests after a natural disaster?

A: Definitely. We received hundreds of requests from people who wanted to leave Puerto Rico. An aircraft holds a limited number of passengers. There were various lists and officials who were using different methods of communication. The airport was hot, crowded, and people were extremely emotional. It’s important to plan for situations like this.

Q: What are the lessons learned from your experience?

A: First of all, be more human. We have to be more compassionate with one another, and empathy is key. Emotions run high during these situations and the ability to view all of it from the perspective of those affected is important.  We have to care for people in the same manner as we would care for our own loved ones in a crisis.  Certainly, all airlines require revenue and want to continue operating during these situations, but we prioritized the care and safety of people above revenue in this crisis.  As a result, when it was over, people remembered how they were cared for them and actively supported our airline, thus strengthening our business and brand reputation.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A:  Airlines are very competitive and focused on their bottom lines during normal operations; however, in crisis situations, those priorities change.  I am grateful to have been a part of the incredible experience of all the airlines working together during this crisis. We became like one family, and through our shared experiences, we were able to make the best of a very difficult situation.