What an Emergency Landing Tells Us About Wellth

Pritpal S Tamber

August 28, 2013

How a group of strangers started to take care of each other

There have been a number of reactions to the launch of Wellthcare and my intention was to reflect on them in my second Log post. However, as ever, “events” have conspired against the best of intentions. 

My Virgin Atlantic flight from London to New York had to make an emergency landing at Gander Airport, Canada. As one would expect from the industry that health care often looks to for inspiration on safety, the pilot handled the whole thing with admirable calm. One moment there was an announcement that there was a “technical problem”, the next we’d landed. At no point was the flying or the staff visibly panicked. 

After that, though, things started to go wrong. 

At first, it was said it’d likely take a couple of hours to fix. Then, we were told a fix would not be possible so a new aeroplane would have to be sent – from London, some five hours away. Then we were told they were trying to find a crew for the new aeroplane so it would take even longer and that we should probably wait in the airport. We disembarked. 

Gander airport isn’t very big. Our body clocks were at about 2am so most passengers made a rush for what seating there was and lay across three chairs. The white blankets of the higher classes of travel were noticeably visible on the better seating. Virgin Atlantic told the media there were no rooms in local hotels so crew and passengers were all sleeping in the aeroplane or the terminal. 

About an hour later, the crew were seen marching off together. It was clear they’d found hotel rooms. A few hours later we were handed letters that said our replacement flight had been scheduled but it was over nine hours away. Eventually that flight was delayed even further and all in all we had to wait about 17 hours in Gander Airport. 

When we got the letters about the replacement flight we asked if we could leave the airport. I’m a British citizen and I don’t think I need a visa to be in Canada. I think the same is true for Americans. I wanted to go for a walk, have a better meal than the airport canteen offered, and perhaps find a gym to stretch given my ongoing back problems. We were told we couldn’t leave because they were worried we’d miss our replacement flight. 

A few of us found this quite comical. The last time I looked, I was an adult, and one that has been a regular flyer for about 20 years. I really did not need my hand holding when it came to turning up to an airport on time. We let is slide with a resigned chuckle and a shake of our heads. 

Our resignation soon turned into anger. We asked if we could at least sit outside and were told that they did not have the fire personnel to guarantee our safety. What did they think we were going to do? At lunchtime they closed the canteen for an “existing booking”, and even stayed closed for longer than they announced. Virgin Atlantic’s automated system sent emails to passengers that contradicted what we’d been told and the airport staff had no access to the airline to get clarification. The Wifi was flaky, at best, and the pay phones just didn’t work. Resigned chuckles gave way to anger and disbelief. 

But then something interesting happened. The passengers started taking care of each other. Comments that started around the ineptitude of Virgin Atlantic turned into conversations about the reason for one’s travel, where one lived, and whether there was any way we could help. The one chap whose laptop seemed able to stay connected to the airport’s weak Wifi simply left the browser open and let people send emails. People watched each other’s bags as they went for walks around the terminal. People bought each other food. 

As I participated in this camaraderie, I asked myself how our latent empathy was harnessed to create value that we clearly all appreciated. I don’t know the answer, and I realise that having a common enemy helps, but it made me wonder whether what I was witnessing was the rise of Wellth, a currency or currencies that gave people the ability to take care of each other. 

The airline and the airport probably think they were taking care of us but they only operate within the narrow definitions afforded by their business models and regulators. We, the passengers, wanted more, and while we were able to help each other we were often held back by the airline and the airport. 

This makes me think of the health care industry. It provides interventions that sit squarely in their business models and report metrics that regulators demand, which politicians turn into press releases, and yet people are often left unsatisfied. Rather than ask the health care industry to do more, how do we create the conditions for people to do more? How do we harness the latent empathy? 

I don’t know the answer (I am hoping to debate it with the Wellthcare Explorers over the next few months) but what I do know is that big soulless organisations, like Virgin Atlantic and health care providers, are simply ill equipped to provide the highly-tailored micro-solutions that people want. They are, in fact, so ill equipped that their only role may be to help people help each other or simply to just get out of the way. 

What Virgin Atlantic failed to realise is that by (unintentionally) creating a shared experience they created a community. It was a transient one but it was one wanting to take care of each other. It was one in which new value was created between people and could have been harnessed given the right conditions. I can’t help feeling that the health care industry needs to learn the same lesson. 

This post was first co-published on Wellthcare and MedCrunch

Pritpal S Tamber

I’m a doctor who trained as a medical editor and publisher and now researches and consults on the link between community power and health equity. My interest in community power started when I was the Physician Editor of TEDMED and is explained in My Perspective. I also work as a freelance medical editor and publisher for organisations that want to write high-quality articles and a strategy for their publishing and promotion. Find out more on my About page.

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