22 December 2010

The importance of a good "Plan B"

Shortly before I left on my travels, I was involved in organising a business continuity exercise at work. Little did I realise at the time just how useful the skills I need for that type of work would be during my trip!

On the first occasion, I was confronted with an immediate problem. My ship was not going to be calling into the port where I was (Svolvaer) because of weather problems. A couple of emails and phone calls later and "Plan B" was in place - an almost three hour taxi ride on dark, icy roads, through sleety weather, to reconnect with my ship in a harbour that wasn't facing the open seas.

The second problem hasn't actually happened yet. My plan B has been developed based on the likelihood of a problem arising. My original plan was to return to Australia from Oslo via Paris and Dubai. With the current weather problems in central and western Europe, and the ensuing transport chaos in the UK, France, Belgium and Germany - it simply wasn't possible to say whether my original flights would get through or not.

Yes, some flights are getting through Paris with some delays, while other flights are being cancelled. While weather problems can create havoc at any time of the year, the week before Christmas complicates  the issue, because there is simply no spare capacity on the following days. Some airlines have been reportedly picking up displaced passengers and bumping those holding tickets for a flight that actually takes off.

While again it's impossible to accurately forecast the weather, when I stacked up what we do know: snow and continuing sub-zero temperatures are forecast until Christmas at least; infrastructure to deal with snow and ice is not as good in Paris and London as it is in Scandinavia, Russia or other areas where flight operations routinely take place in this sort of weather. And in some airports, supply of critical de-icing fluids has been compromised by road transport delays. Knock-on effects from the initial delays last weekend are expected to take until after Christmas to clear up.

It doesn't take a crystal ball to realise that travelling through Paris this week is going to be high risk. And more importantly, I actually don't need to be in Paris for any reason other than to connect with my flight home. So in a way, I would be needlessly contributing to the congestion problems if I stuck with my original flights.

So, a few more phone calls, emails and web research, and I've uncovered a very good alternative routing to Dubai via Istanbul. I have to cancel one flight, book one new flight from Oslo to Istanbul, and reroute my original Paris-Dubai-Sydney Emirates flight to Istanbul-Dubai-Sydney. Well, not personally.  My travel agents have swung into action and made numerous phone calls and confirmed that my revised flight arrangements are now in place.

When I stopped to think about it, my willingness to get a Plan B (C, or D if necessary) in place bears some resemblance to working on a business continuity exercise: firstly, make sure you have the right people on your team and that they understand exactly what you want or need (importantly, know what you want as well). Be prepared to compromise. Don't blindly accept everything you're told, especially when it's an opinion rather than a hard fact. Get the facts or other backup for the advice you're given. Know what questions to ask, or failing that, just ask as many questions as you need to get the result you want.

Prevention is better than a cure. Read, forecast, estimate (and in business continuity terms, assess the risk). If things look bad and are getting worse, don't just pray for an upswing when you need it. Know what you can control or change and what you can't - and have the wisdom or judgment to know the difference! If you see trouble ahead, try and navigate around it rather than just keep on going because you don't know what else to do.

There's often more than one solution (in my case, Christmas in Oslo was a temporary Plan C, now abandoned). You may need to trade off something to get to the optimal solution - again in my case it was time, money and possibly some lost frequent flyer points. But in contrast to my goal of being home with family and friends for Christmas, this wasn't such a big compromise to make.

Interestingly, business commentators on BBC World (my primary TV source here) have been saying that the current weather situation is not new to Europe and that quite a few lessons have been learnt from previous serious weather events here and particularly in the US. However, the learnings have mostly been applied to fixing problems as they arrive (how familiar does that sound), rather than forward prevention and planning. Of course we can't predict or control the weather, but airports and airlines could have had better contingency plans around de-icing fluid supplies, manpower, ice and snow clearing - and even more importantly, dealing with the human welfare and communication aspects of these situations.

The media has been brilliant at filling the gaps, and most airport websites have some information about the status of flights and delays, but there is no concerted, partnership effort to communicate and care for those caught up in the middle of the problem through no fault of their own. This is the area where considerable improvements need to be made by airlines and airport operators alike.

And the best thing about having Plan B in place, is that I can now relax and enjoy the last few hours of my holiday! Now that's the biggest bonus of all!!


  1. I was worried you would not make it home - love a women whom can plan through the alphabet!!!

  2. Always knew you were resourceful.

  3. And I am grateful for Plan B. See you soon.