Friday, June 12, 2009, 9:21 AM

Lessons from the Airport. WWGD? (What would Grady do?)

This is not your normal air passenger rant, so buckle your seat belts, replace your tray tables and prepare for takeoff.

On Tuesday just past, eleven and a half hours after arriving at Reagan Airport, and seven and a half hours after buckling myself into a Canada Regional Jet for a 45-minute air journey from DC to Greensboro, the technological miracle of air travel was once again underway. At cruising altitude, a nearly full moon created chiaroscuro cumulus towers – the remnants of mighty storms – as though they were 100-story servings of silver and black cotton candy. To the east, perhaps 50 miles, an indescribable light show was underway as lightning ignited within the mighty, departing storm. Had I not endured the 11 ½ hour horror show, I would not have witnessed this amazing and rare natural extravaganza, and I truly am thankful that I had the opportunity to do so.

A maintenance delay had caused a 1:45 p.m. departure time to slip until 4 p.m., at which point I and 37 other passengers buckled in. By then the inexorable forces of summertime in the Atlantic seaboard had brewed up a wave of thunderstorms extending from Philadelphia southwest at least to Mississippi. Only after the trailing edge of this line of storms had crept eastward past Greensboro did the technological divinity named ATC deign permission to depart.

Perhaps in all the world, only a group of people traveling to the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina could have been as composed and gracious through such an ordeal as were my fellow travelers. With shadows of the Air France disaster in our minds, we all knew that we could not fly a plane not in perfect mechanical condition. And even though the mechanical delay put us into meteorological hell, we also understood we could not take on a 700-mile band of thunderstorms. So, for 7 1/2 hours, a truly amazing flight attendant performed miracles via shadow puppetry, the creation of “fake mimosas” by mixing orange juice and ginger ale, and any other number of ingenious distractions. I think we all understood the problems and – since most of us had no choice but to be in Greensboro in the morning – we all were willing to risk that the plane eventually would depart. And ultimately, at 11:35 p.m., it did, making the flight in about 35, not 45, minutes.

As I witnessed, from 21,000 feet above the earth, the miraculous tableau, I vowed to write about this experience in the context of legal client service, so here goes: During the 7 ½ hours we sat on the plane, the people who were really in charge of “the engagement” – the pilots – communicated with the clients/passengers only a few times, despite passengers imploring the flight attendant to have them say something. Here is the summary of the pilot communications:

1. shortly after boarding, the standard preflight announcement
2. after one hour on board, an announcement, generally, of the weather problem with no prediction as to what it would mean
3. five hours into the ordeal, an announcement of the need for refueling and a restatement of the weather challenge, once again, with no prediction as to the meaning, although at this time the pilot did voice a commitment to “get this plane down to Greensboro”
4. six hours into the ordeal, an announcement that a flight path had been discovered and that the plane would move to the runway.
5. 90 minutes after reaching the runway, a confession that the pilots had not wanted to break the bad news that the flight path had been closed again, along with a statement that the pilots were working hard and begging ATC to create an alternative path.

That’s about it.

How about an hourly report that the unfortunate situation had not changed? How about an explanation of communications with controllers and a summary of attempts to find alternative routes? How about a report on the stalling out of the eastward movement of the weather system? How about an explanation that sometimes, oftentimes, summer storms diminish in the evening hours as the earth’s surface cools? How about an explanation of how late the flight could take off and how late it could land? Even a modicum of communication of this sort could have calmed our nerves and enabled educated decisions on our part about whether to sit it out or demand that a shuttle bus come out to the tarmac and rescue us. Communication would not have changed the facts, but it would have provided a foundation on which we clients could reconcile those facts with our own circumstances.

As a business person in a law firm, I obviously don’t provide legal services to clients, but I do know that many companies and executives are engaged with law firms only when mechanical problems and storms are afoot. As a result of my experience, I think I’m going to remind the lawyers I work most closely about the importance of great communication with people who are under stress. One of the lions and legends at Womble Carlyle, Grady Barnhill, is known as a master at this, and I have heard many stories about how he has intelligently and understandingly communicated with clients and even their spouses and children about upcoming legal ordeals. I know that he has carefully instructed additional generations of litigators in the importance of this point. So, I’ll not be educating -- just reminding -- my lawyer colleagues of lessons that Grady has been teaching for decades: As lawyers steer their planes/engagements through storms, they need to be sure to keep clients/passengers continually apprised of developments – good, bad, or nonexistent. Like the passengers on US Airways Flight 3987, law firm clients will benefit from, and value, a regular stream of explanations from those who are in the front of the plane. We would have preferred a Grady Barnhill in the pilot seat that night.


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