7 Jun 2018

In recent years, Abu Dhabi International Airport has suffered a number of significant disruptions to its operations as a result of an unpredictable meteorological phenomena: fog. For reasons that aren’t completely clear (forgive the pun) – and strangely in a region associated with permanent heat and sunshine –  Abu Dhabi is more prone to fog than any airport in the Middle East. In fact, it ranks in the top 30 airports in the world most affected by fog. By proactively deploying communications, the Airport’s communications team has been able to reduce the misery that passengers can suffer from such disruption.

It wasn’t always thus. Operations and communications teams at the airport only intersected in the event of a major crisis, when their (well-practiced) crisis communications plan would be activated. Fog (which usually develops during the night and dissipates over the course of the morning) presented a weak link in their communications framework: a minor annoyance not requiring an escalation in communications.

However, between 2014 and 2015, the operational effect of a number of incidents of fog at Abu Dhabi Airport were compounded by growing air traffic volumes and the construction of the Midfield Terminal between the airport’s two existing runways. Add in increased social media use by passengers and you have conditions in which reputational risks are greatly amplified.

In early 2014, a few hours of foggy conditions had elapsed before a short communiqué was issued, merely confirmed that a number of incoming flights had had to be diverted and that this was causing a backlog and preventing flights from leaving. Little other information was provided, and a lot of criticism ensued as a result, especially on social media, to the effect that passengers were being kept in the dark.

A year later, the PR damage was far greater. This time the focus was on a San Francisco flight that had taxied out to the runway, could not get back to the gate and had only taken off after a 12-hour delay, meaning that passengers had been on board for more than 24 hours. The incident went viral and was covered worldwide.

The communications team resolved that the potential damage to the airport’s reputation of such scenarios required the creation of a formal “fog plan”.

In any crisis, effective communications revolve around the swift and efficient processing and transmission of information, and also around anticipation and proper preparedness. On the latter, a procedure was introduced in the communications function to check visibility and wind speed over a 12-hour horizon. If evening checks saw that visibility was going to be less than 120 metres (the cut off for shutting down runways) or that windspeed was going to be between 5 and 8 knots, the team would issue a statement on the airport’s Twitter account and place it prominently on its website, saying that foggy conditions were expected during the night and early morning, and that passengers should therefore check with their airline before traveling to the airport. (One of the key objectives was to minimise the number of people in the airport waiting to depart when they didn’t need to be there, to prevent overcrowding.)

The fog plan also incorporated a procedure for the communications team to be immediately alerted – at any time – if the runways were closed and flights were being diverted, and for a decision to be made as to the need for proactive communications of the fact, or merely reactive. This would be based on the length of time the runways were closed, which would have a direct impact on the level of likely disruption. Close co-ordination with operations was essential.

In addition, a series of pre-prepared statements was created which were much fuller in content (for example, stressing that all runway closures are based primarily on grounds of safety and also giving much more detailed information about the number of flights affected, which ones and where they had been diverted to, all in an effort to be as informative and transparent as possible.) Similar content was developed for social media.

Since 2015, Abu Dhabi Airport has had occasion to put the plan into practice on a number of occasions. But now, the communications function is able to spring into action much earlier and be much more proactive. The plan enables the communications team to give passengers who are affected by fog the thing all people crave in a crisis: information. The result is little or no negative publicity around fog delays.