There’s a strong typhoon coming. It could hit Hong Kong, and the airport, hard. Or it could weaken and the city will suffer nothing worse than a wet weekend.
So here is your choice: do you call a halt to the flying programme and disrupt the travel plans of tens of thousands of customers – and if so, when?
This is not a theoretical question. In September, one of the worst storms in a generation was indeed heading for Hong Kong. Sustained winds around the eye of Typhoon Mangkhut reached 200 kilometres an hour.
For Cathay Pacific, ensuring the safety of customers, aircrew, ground staff and aircraft came first. Next: how to minimise disruption for thousands of customers?
Hong Kong is a hub. Bet on the ‘wet weekend’ scenario and planeloads of people might fly in for a connecting flight that is no longer operating. Instead, they’d be stranded in an empty terminal with shuttered shops and no transport options into the city. With many aircraft in the wrong place, they could then face extra delays as operations are rebuilt.
Who makes that call? The Integrated Operations Centre (IOC), a working group of departments from across the Cathay airlines, chaired by Mark Hoey, General Manager Operations.
With Mangkhut they made that call: go big and go early.
Hoey says: ‘The level of preparation by government, industry and community ahead of the typhoon was unprecedented. I called the first IOC meeting four or five days out.’
The first travel alert swiftly followed on the Cathay Pacific website. Head of Airport Customer Service, Josh Rogers, says: ‘Normally, we issue a warning three days out. This time it went out much earlier because of the size of the storm.’
Next day: a second alert, including a travel waiver. Customers could rearrange their travel without penalty.
‘Making an early call is something we’re learning from US carriers with winter snowstorms,’ says Rogers. ‘We are learning from these big-scale events that the earlier you do it, the greater control you will pass to the customer. All the latest research says that customers want the flexibility and tools to do things themselves.
‘The fewer people we have to look after because they’ve looked after themselves, the quicker we can look after those who haven’t sorted things out.’
If you’ve ever wondered why airlines ask for an email or contact number, this is why.
Hongkongers were all too aware of the incoming typhoon. But travellers from around the world were more likely to be following media coverage of the tropical storm threatening the US eastern seaboard.
Hence those early communications. The big announcement came when Cathay suspended operations between 2:30am on Sunday morning until about 4:30am on Monday morning. Around 555 flights were cancelled, affecting the travel plans of about 90,000 people.
And while a growing number of customers rebooked on the website via the ‘Manage my booking’ page, it meant a very busy week for the call centre and social media teams.
Irene Hon is Hong Kong Hub Manager for the global contact centres. On Sunday night during the storm, her team and the other centres took about 68,000 calls. ‘The early announcement led to a spread of calls that was easier to manage,’ she says. ‘When people hear that flights are affected they call in to clarify. People like to be reassured.’
Around 60,000 people were ‘reprotected’ – booked on alternative flights.
Rogers adds: ‘We try to get customers to their chosen destination with Cathay or alliance partners first.’
Only a handful of passengers turned up for their flight without realising it had been cancelled. In Manchester, around 20 people showed up out of 240 booked. In London, there were fewer than 100 over five flights. The communication programme worked: these figures are a big improvement over Typhoon Hato, 2017’s monster storm.
As customers weighed up their options, the airport team weighed down the aircraft. Around 10 were left behind, heavy with fuel and parked in the most sheltered gates. They, along with regional aircraft, would be crucial in rebuilding the service.
Meanwhile, long-haul flights were ready to be dispatched from across the globe to arrive as Hong Kong operations restarted, but with enough fuel to divert to other airports.
Only two years ago, the airline had to rebook people individually. ‘Now,’ says Rogers, ‘we can ask the system to pull up everyone travelling from London to Sydney, for example, and rebook all 27 of them in one hit.
‘Soon, we will be able to take a whole flight or more and put it through an optimiser. People will receive an email letting them know we have rebooked them. We’re hoping to have customers receive their new flight arrangements within half a day. Three years ago, an event of this scale would take three to four days to get everyone rebooked.
‘We try to put ourselves in customers’ shoes. If you’re travelling to London or New York, you probably have hotels booked: it’s not just about the flight. You might be starting a cruise or travelling for a birth, a funeral, a wedding. We try to keep as much of this in our thinking as we can.
‘We have invested a lot into customer communications technology. But we still need to be self-critical and learn from each event. It is at times like these that we need to show not just what we do to look after customers, but also how we look after them. That’s the dividend of booking with Cathay.’
After Mangkhut passed, Rogers reflected on the previous days. ‘It’s a good sign how little coverage there was about airport chaos. It’s a step forward. There were a lot of people sticking up their hands and saying, “Can I come and help?” That Cathay spirit counts for a lot.’