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  • Writer's pictureLouise Carnachan

How Do You Respond to Unexpected Change?

We were an hour out of Portland on our way to Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey when a flight attendant asked, “Is there a physician onboard? If so, please ring your call bell.” I turned to my seatmate. Our eyebrows raised in unison.

I was on the aisle, six rows away from the action. The partially bald, gray-haired doctor spent the better part of the next hour crouched by the ailing man in first class. The physician repeatedly conferred with the flight attendants while the patient’s wife stood nearby.

I felt the plane dip. “Did we just lose altitude?” I asked my seatmate. “Maybe they’re looking for better airspace,” he replied hopefully. Then came the announcement from the pilot, “We’re landing for a medical emergency. Flight attendants, please prepare the cabin.” Those seated closer to the drama possessed more intel that filtered back to my row and I learned we had turned around to land in Billings, Montana. There was a lot of snow on either side of the runway.

Once the EMTs had taken the patient and his wife off the plane, all of us assumed we’d be buttoned up and on our way shortly. The pilot stood outside the cockpit with the mike. “Folks, we have two problems. First, we landed heavy with fuel because we expected to fly across the country. Now the mechanics need to make sure there’s no damage to the aircraft. The good news is that we didn’t bounce when we landed. Second—and I’m optimistic about this—my co-pilot and I started our day in Arizona before we flew to Portland. There’s an extremely short leeway before we “time out” and aren’t allowed to continue flying. That means from the moment we close the door here to when we open the door in Newark, we have to be within the window of our FAA authorized flying time. I have complete confidence we can make that happen. Operations is working on the most direct flight plan now.” Unfortunately, his optimism went unrewarded. An hour later, he told us we were flying back to Portland. Cue up one hundred and fifty-six groans.

Unexpected change. You can separate the seasoned travelers from the rest by their equanimity under adverse conditions. No one wanted this emergency diversion and the subsequent consequences—not the pilots, the flight attendants, the passengers, the Newark passengers whose flight to Portland had been cancelled, nor I might add, the hapless couple taken to a Billings hospital. Everyone had a story. Some people complained, mostly about the money they were losing by not showing up on time. Some had events or meetings that were important. The man behind me got a text when we were on the ground in Billings that his mother had passed—he didn’t make it in time. Compassion was expressed by many, most particularly the flight crew including the pilot who spoke to the man personally.

I’ve had lots of conversations about change recently, a pertinent topic for all of my clients. Change that is imposed on us may be the most difficult to handle but even the ones we choose can generate an emotional wallop. We feel out of control. It’s messy, plans are taken off course, things don’t go as expected, not everyone plays fair, communication goes sideways. It’s the universal stuff of being human.

Something I learned years ago has been very helpful. When you’re struggling with change, ask yourself, “what do I need to do, let go of or become, to navigate this more easily?” It’s often what I need to let go of that hangs me up. During another untoward flight incident, I was going from Shannon Airport in the Republic of Ireland to Heathrow in London to fly home. The flight out of Shannon was delayed due to fog. I missed the flight from London to Seattle. I wasn’t as seasoned a traveler then and had a melt-down at the counter. The patient agent looked me in the eye and said, “You aren’t going home today.” Right. Stop fighting what is and accept it. Once I did, I was able to move onto what I was going to do—like find lodging.

Each of my fellow passengers on flight 53 had choices to make. Some chose action (do), others adjusted their expectations (let go of), the rest changed their attitude (become). An enterprising man at the end of my row was an industrious model of “do.” He tapped on his device until he had five alternative flights booked, all accomplished before we left the ground in Billings. He really needed to get to New York for a meeting. As for me, I decided to wait until we got back to Portland to talk to an agent and rebook for a different day on the same (usually) non-stop flight. That was a “let go of” moment—I wasn’t getting there that day; I could be flexible.

After we arrived back in Portland (seven hours after first left PDX) I stood in line for an hour to speak with an agent. I felt for these two women who were trying to serve a plane’s worth of people. The technology was uncooperative, but a very skilled supervisor was on the scene for work-arounds. When something went amiss with my flight confirmation, she waved me to the side to fix it which allowed the next customers to step up. It was the doctor and his wife. I leaned over to him and said, “I hope they give you first class for everything you did on board.” Before he could respond, his wife said, “He’s the reason we’re back here!” in a less than gracious tone. No glory for the heroic it seems—although I’m sure that patient in Billings was mighty grateful. As for the rest of us, we got to polish our change response skills that day.

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