Tragic Lessons

I was one of seven people on the aircraft when we had a midair over the Amazon. I am grateful we survived. It was really a matter of less than an inch that was the difference between our surviving or perishing. And it was a matter of several feet that was the difference between the lives of the people on the airliner being spared. Sadly, that didn't happen.

When you talk about a worst-case scenario when preparing an emergency plan, in many ways this was it. Aside from the human tragedy — it was the worst accident in Brazilian history — it was a brand-new airplane, it happened on a Friday afternoon at the close of business, it happened in a remote corner of Brazil where virtually no one spoke English, and we had no ability to communicate with the outside world. It took me 24 hours to talk to our CEO. Our only Portuguese speaker on the airplane had a medical emergency while we were there. And to boot, we had a New York Times reporter on the airplane. Actually, having Joe Sharkey on the airplane ultimately benefited us. When we had to remain silent because we were concerned about the fate of our pilots, he could speak the truth, and could speak it from the safety of the United States.

I want to read an e-mail we sent to family and friends to give you a sense of what it was like right after the accident, right after we landed. Bear in mind that this was before we knew an airliner had crashed. When I read it, I'm struck about how naive I was about certain aspects, about how quickly this unfolded and how quickly it went bad.

"Dear friends, family and colleagues. First, and most importantly we are all fine and spending the night at a military base in central Brazil. We believe we were hit by another aircraft, which damaged our wing and our tail. It happened while cruising at 37,000 feet en route from the Embraer factory in São Jose to Manaus in the Amazon. The crew did a wonderful job bringing the aircraft safely to the military base and we are being well cared for here. Embraer is sending an airplane to pick us up first thing in the morning and we will be flown back to the factory to debrief with officials. We will then return by airline hopefully tomorrow evening. Because of where we are staying we are unable to call again, but our first thoughts have been to reassure you that all is OK. Once we are back in São Jose we will have access to our phones, Blackberries and other means of communication and will call you by late morning. We love you all." And it was signed by the seven of us.

Well, 71 days later, our pilots finally returned home. The process to seize their passports started almost immediately in what we were told was routine police questioning. Their release was not for the largesse of the people who were doing the investigation; it was by order of a three-judge panel who decided the seizure of their passports was illegal, that it was contrary to Brazilian law.

We learned some very important lessons: The most basic one was that no matter how much preparation you do, bad things still happen to good people and good operators. And no matter how much training and preparation you do, no matter how much caution you exercise, you may find yourself in trouble. So it's crucial to have a bulletproof emergency response plan. And when things go really bad, you'll be astonished about how many things there are for you to deal with.

I say I was naive because I expected we would be able to fly out the next day. That's what we were told. That obviously did not come to pass. I was also naive because as an American traveling abroad, I figured I'd just call the embassy, and they would take care of it for us. That's not reality. The American government has limits on what it can do, and what it has the will to do to help you out. It's easy to become collateral damage as an American in trouble in another country, especially in such a highly publicized event. We got assistance from the U.S. government, but it was not a magic bullet and you can't expect it to be one.

So when planning for your own worst-case scenario, I'd say having the 24/7 contact number of these three people is most important: your insurance company, an attorney with aviation knowledge, and a public relations person because you can't possibly speak for yourself when all these things are unfolding. No matter what you do, the press is going to do some damage to you; but it's going to be far worse if you ignore it rather than try to educate them about the story in which you're involved.

The other thing I'd say is, just as when an emergency hits an airplane and you're taught to fly the airplane, you have to focus on running your business. It's very easy to get distracted by all the things going on around you. But you owe it to all the other people in your company and the people who are involved with whatever the tragedy to continue to run your business. Talk to your customers. Expect that there's going to be some fallout from industry customers. That's just the way it is; you have to accept it. When enough time passes and hopefully when the facts come out, you'll come out OK on the other end.

Also, it's important to stay involved and on top of industry events and calls to action. Criminalization was the last thing on my mind until Sept. 29, 2006. Our pilots have been indicted by a Brazilian court for something they didn't do based upon an investigation conducted by people who were not aviation professionals. So you'll be astonished about how quickly things can go bad, and you have to be prepared if you find yourself in that unfortunate position. B&CA