Web aids Swissair response
September 15, 1998
by Sharon Machlis
(IDG) -- At 5:30 a.m. September 3, Andy Guenthard got the call that every airline employee dreads: One of the company's planes had gone down.
Within 30 minutes, Guenthard, manager of electronic-commerce at Swissair, and half of his eight-member team already were at work so the Zurich-based airline could use the Internet to help people cope with the tragedy's aftermath.
"Everybody is under complete stress," Guenthard said. "Whatever technology is there, let's use it."
By 7 a.m., the team had updated the company's home page on the World Wide Web with information about Flight 111 as it became available. Soon, E-mail messages began to come in from frantic relatives and friends who thought they had loved ones on the downed New York-to-Geneva jet.
"We tried to respond to every E-mail we received within three minutes," Guenthard said. Messages were turned over to the airline's special crisis care team. For any E-mail that included a phone number, a Swissair specialist telephoned the family member or friend immediately, Guenthard said.
The passenger list couldn't be released until airline officials were completely sure of its accuracy and, because of U.S. law, families of all U.S. passengers onboard were notified. Once the list was made public, it was posted on the Swissair Web site as well.
To deal with the international crush of media seeking information about the crash. Swissair officials told reporters that all public statements and press releases would be available on the Web site.
Concern for families
"The Web did help a lot," said Hans Klaus, a Swissair spokesman in the airline's public relations department.
Swissair generally has received high marks for the way it has responded to the tragedy, namely by trying to care for victims' families and release information promptly.
"When you have a crisis, every system, every person, every operation you have is put under enormous stress. In most cases, organizations do not re-act well," said Robert Dilenschneider, a crisis management consultant at Dilenschneider Group in New York. "Swissair has done a terrific job. It's a model of how a crisis ought to be handled."
Putting information on the Internet is one example of how the company is properly communicating with victims' families, the media and the public at large, he said.
By 7:30 a.m. Swiss time, when news of the accident first hit national TV and radio news programs, traffic to the Web site soared. Swissair contacted its Internet service provider, saying it would need extra bandwidth, and shut down all unnecessary resource drains -- even software that logs site traffic -- to cope with the flood of users.
The revamped www.swissair.com site was treated as a news service, with regular updates. The uniform resource locator brought up a text-only opening page about the accident with a link to the airline's regular site.
"It's very fast to put news up there," Guenthard said. "We didn't want to make a multimedia spectacle out of it; that wouldn't be appropriate."
Along with queries about passengers, Swissair started to receive hundreds of E-mail messages that simply expressed sorrow about the tragedy. The day after the crash, the electronic-commerce group added a condolence book for people to write messages of sympathy.
"This is the best feature we could think of," Guenthard said.
About 1,500 messages poured in the first day it was up; there were 4,500 or so late last week. Victims' families can see all the messages, and any E-mail that mentions a specific passenger or crew member is sent to that person's survivors. The electronic-commerce team also sees the messages, which gives them and fellow airline employees an outlet for their own grief.
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