Civil Aviation Authority flying the flag for crisis planning

October 30, 2019 by Jenny Payne

In the face of significant challenges following Thomas Cook’s collapse, the Civil Aviation Authority proves it pays to invest in crisis planning

The collapse of the world’s oldest tour operator Thomas Cook in September 2019 has caused significant crisis management challenges not only for Thomas Cook, but also the myriad of organisations connected to it. While former Thomas Cook executives have been grappling with intense media and government scrutiny, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has given a textbook example of how to execute a crisis response.

Around 150,000 customers from the UK were on a Thomas Cook holiday when the company went into liquidation. The situation triggered the CAA’s largest ever peacetime repatriation, otherwise known as ‘Operation Matterhorn’. In just two weeks, the CAA’s detailed and advanced crisis planning meant that all UK citizens were successfully repatriated, 94% on the same day as their cancelled Thomas Cook flight.

The well-oiled machine of Operation Matterhorn demonstrates the importance of having thoughtful, comprehensive and well-rehearsed crisis plans in place. Here are the key crisis management take-aways from the CAA’s response.

Learn from experience

The collapse of Monarch Airlines in 2017 presented the CAA with similar challenges as Thomas Cook’s demise. While the CAA was praised for how it handled the Monarch repatriation, there were inevitably some learnings it was able to identify and feed into its crisis plans and preparation.

Rather than just heaving a huge sigh of relief that it’s all over, the best organisations spend time conducting a post-crisis review. Dissecting the response after the event generates valuable learnings that can be used to improve crisis plans and processes.

Stakeholders must always be front of mind

The CAA’s director of communications Richard Stephenson told PRWeek that they “put themselves in the shoes of other communicators who would have to respond to the challenge in their own organisations and tried to provide as much information and materials as [they] could.”

Ensuring that other organisations had the means of response meant the CAA could share the load of communication without risking mixed messaging. Not only that, but the CAA was careful to ensure its messaging resonated with key audiences. For example, its specially created website had clear answers to all questions Thomas Cook holidaymakers might have had.

A crisis communication response will only succeed if critical stakeholders and the information they need has been correctly identified. In anticipation of a crisis and during a crisis response, organisations should pinpoint who their critical stakeholders are and devise communication materials that meet their needs.

Don’t forget the importance of media training

As soon as Thomas Cook’s collapse was announced, the CAA kickstarted an extensive programme of media activity. They conducted close to 100 media interviews within the first 48 hours. Delivering quality interviews which communicated the CAA’s key messages would not have been possible without a pool of media trained spokespeople on hand.

Even the most experienced spokespeople feel the pressure of being interviewed during a crisis. Investing time in crisis media training leaves spokespeople better prepared to handle the added challenges that crisis media interviews bring.

As the old adage goes, “failing to plan is planning to fail.” There is no question that had the CAA not dedicated time to crisis planning, it would not have been able to execute Operation Matterhorn as effectively as it did.

To find out how prepared your organisation is to face a crisis, take Insignia’s crisis readiness test.



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Finalists for Specialist Consultancy of the Year at CIR Business Continuity Awards 2020 & 2023

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Finalists in 2023 Great British Entrepreneur Awards: Service Industries category

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Winner Specialist Business Book of the Year 2021 at The Business Book Awards (Crisis Proof)

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Finalists in the Business Champion Awards 2021: Champions in a Crisis category

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