Horizon Air Apparent Suicide by Plane: A Big Lesson for Crisis Managers (Updated)


Scott Sobel, MA Media Psychology, kglobal Agency 

There are so many unbelievable true stories in the news that it is sometimes hard to know what is real and what is Hollywood fiction. The tragic incident involving a Horizon Air ground crewman is one of those cases where truth is absolutely stranger than fiction.  Twenty-nine-year-old Richard Russell is believed to have committed suicide last Friday after he stole a commuter airliner from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac). Authorities are still investigating whether Russell did indeed commit suicide or lost control of the aircraft. He wasn’t a trained pilot but managed to use a tug to pull the aircraft to the runway, turn on the plane without a key and take off in the complex multi-engine turboprop, putting-on an aerobatic show for the next hour-and-a-half. Then, with military jets following, the 76-seat Q400 crashed into a remote Puget Sound island, killing the pilot and destroying the plane.

The last aviation crisis emergency response and prevention case I created and organized less than a year ago included the plausible scenario of a disgruntled and armed former employee threatening his way past a general aviation hangar front desk security guard and then possibly taking a hostage.  The potential active shooter held-off authorities while holed-up beneath a commuter jet housed in the flight test hangar. We involved all airline manufacturer staff, local first responders, the control tower, the nearby airport authorities, a nearby school and the news media. The Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were all aware of the exercise and subsequent debriefing. That was an accepted likely scenario. After the Sea-Tac incident Friday, I wish I had also offered a list of other, more improbable practice cases.

So, what happens to the aviation industry after this unbelievable Sea-Tac incident has become reality? Consider again, a non-pilot, a trusted multi-year employee, with no reported mental health issues steals a plane, is able to take off and fly for nearly two hours before apparently, deliberately, crashing the aircraft! What if Richard Russell had bad intentions for others or what if someone else, a non-pilot terrorist could have flown that aircraft into a populated area, a skyscraper in downtown Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco?

Every flying passenger, aviator and aviation employee knows what happened in the U.S. and elsewhere after the 911 attack. Airport security measures were drastically changed following trained pilot terrorists, riding as passengers committed mass murder. But now an insider, a non-pilot ground crewman has breached the next level of our seemingly naive security threshold.  How will aviation hiring practices, security clearances and accesses be changed?

This Sea-Tac case should additionally be a game-changer for crisis managers. How do we crisis and reputation managers have to change our practices in order to prepare our clients and employers for that absolute worst-case scenario? I’d strongly suggest that we continue to create and practice that most likely role-play as a priority, but it is also prudent to consider creating an addendum. Don’t miss the opportunity to work with your industry experts and clients to set aside time to consider the least likely scenario as well. The Sea-Tac aviation tragedy will have implications for airport security and screening around the world and should hold lessons for crisis communications practitioners and reputation managers in any business.

As you prepare crisis scenarios and prioritize your role-playing and desktops for the most-likely scenario, don’t ever overlook the least-likely scenarios that could, of course, also have great impact on a business’ or organization’s reputation, and set-up chains-of-events that result in injuries or death. To paraphrase an old saying, prepare for the very worst (and even unbelievable) and hope for the best. History shows anything can happen.

Scott Sobel -Horizon Air Apparent Suicide by Plane: A Big Lesson for Crisis ManagersAbout the Author: Scott Sobel is Senior Vice President, Crisis and Litigation Communications, at kglobal, a Washington, DC-based full-service communications firm that influences public policy, increases market share + builds awareness for our commercial and federal clients. He counsels some of the world’s best-known corporations and is also a former in-house corporate public relations practitioner; major market and TV network police and investigative journalist and a media psychologist. https://kglobal.com/who-we-are/scott-sobel; https://www.kglobal.com/


Leave a Comment