When a hardware glitch in Utah delayed flights from Atlanta to New York to Dallas–Fort Worth last week, meeting professionals got another snapshot of their vulnerability to infrastructure problems that are outside their control but that have the potential to throw months of planning into disarray.
The Wall Street Journal reported that problems began around 5 a.m. Thursday when a Federal Aviation Authority computer began sending out misinformation about pilots’ flight paths and, in some cases, about expected weather patterns. By the time the faulty router was repaired four hours later, the three major New York-area airports were averaging 80-minute delays, and in Atlanta, 377 flights had been delayed or canceled.
According to the WSJ, FAA officials traced the glitch to obsolete equipment that could take another decade to fully modernize, at a cost of up to $40 billion.
"This is like going into the house and having to redo the plumbing and electrical," William Voss, president of the Virginia-based Flight Safety Foundation, told the WSJ. "It's not glamorous, but it's essential for anything else to work."
Gaping holes in critical infrastructure in North America is old news. In 1982, I was assigned to review Brittle Power, a study that documented the vulnerability of North America’s antiquated electric-power grid. Twenty-one years later, almost to the day, a grid failure in northern Ohio triggered the 2003 Northeast Blackout, plunging several states, one Canadian province—and any meetings they happened to be hosting—into darkness. MPI’s 2003 Certification in Meeting Management class convened in Gatineau, Québec, while Ontario was still on emergency power, and to this day, it’s remembered as the Blackout Class of ’03.
Whether a crisis originates with the power grid, the air-traffic control system, or our inability to anticipate extreme weather in an era of rapid climate change, the results can be sudden, severe, and unpredictable. That’s a problem for meeting professionals, particularly when the failure comes from a system that is critical to our success, but is invisible to us until it falls apart.
I know many planners who take pride in the work they do “behind the curtain.” When all goes well, they say, participants never realize how hard the on-site team worked to make it all look so easy. Few of us think about that other curtain that hides the workings of the energy, water, waste, and transportation systems that we take for granted.
The FAA router failure wasn’t the first hitch we’ve seen with air travel, and it certainly won’t be the last. For meeting professionals who want to walk the talk about risk management and business-continuity planning, here’s an idea: Look at alternating your large, national, or international conventions with clusters of regional gatherings. That change would take some of the stress off an air-traffic system that clearly can’t handle the load, and I’m betting that a growth in regional meetings would mean more passionate advocates for high-speed rail … and none too soon.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.