Down (but not out) at 25,000 feet

Just after midnight on Thursday, I posted a message that only began to explain my mood:

Twitter1016

Little did I know at the time that my Thursday would be a lot more eventful than expected and that I would be running more than one race.

I organize team building events in the format of the TV show The Amazing Race. All of our events are custom designed and personalized. Every race is unique. The finished product is the result of countless hours of work including much logistical planning. The process for designing a race begins weeks before its execution.

When I left my house at 8am for Trudeau airport in Montreal on Thursday morning with a bag of materials and clues for a 3pm race in Toronto, I was excited but very calm. Visibility was poor around Toronto’s City airport but I had time. I knew that my 9:30am flight could be delayed up to 2 full hours and I would still arrive with enough time to set up and get the race going.

At the airport, I learned that the 8:30am flight had not yet left, and along with the 9:30am flight, we were waiting for the fog to lift in Toronto before departing. My previous experience was this this was a morning phenomenon and I was confident that we would leave well before 11:30am. The pilot of the flight, along with the Montreal ground crew, were watching a camera perched at the Toronto airport and were encouraged by what they saw. Obviously, their optimism encouraged me.

I got off on next flight out, just before 10am. I knew my schedule would be tight, but that I had time. In the air, all felt perfectly normal, until the captain took to the PA system and explained that the weather conditions had worsened since we took off and that, though we were approaching Toronto’s Billy Bishop airport, that we would have to “hold up here for a while”. When he said he would update us “every 10 minutes”, we all got the sense that this wouldn’t be a short wait.

10, 20, 30 minutes passed. The captain made an attempt to land. We were at the height of the Rogers Center and part way up the CN Tower. We saw they were virtually engulfed in dark fog. The captain pulled the plane back up.

I was still calm. A few passengers started talking about how we would rather land safely and be late than risk a landing with poor visibility.

10, 20 more minutes passed. The captain then explained that we are going to try again from the other side. We made an approach that allowed me to just barely see the edge of the runway from my seat in row 9. And then we were pulled back up again.

At this point, I am slightly on edge. I reassure myself with the knowledge that we were so close. 300 meters to be precise, confirmed by a handheld GPS and ultimately by the co-pilot later on.  The passengers around me start discussing theories of what might come next. Generally, we are confident this is all coming to an end soon, but the word “Pearson” (as in the airport) has entered the conversation.

5-10 minutes later, and the captain takes the mic again. We are all expecting him to say we’re trying again. I wonder if a “third time’s the charm” comment is forthcoming.

Instead, he says this:

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. As you’ve noticed, we have tried twice to land at Toronto City airport, but the fog is not permitting a safe landing… We will be proceeding to our alternate… (Pause)”

He paused long enough for everyone in the middle of the plane to either mouth, or say aloud, “Pearson.”

Then he continued. “Our alternate is Montreal. Arrival time in Montreal is…”

A collective, audible gasp could be heard. I am confident that what came out of my mouth was a hushed “no!” though the voice inside my head screamed something that sounded more like “no <censored> way!”

I looked around for a flight attendant, probably to get a visual confirmation that the captain said what I thought (feared) he said. Emily and Kathleen,  I quickly learned their names, were being bombarded with questions. We could not believe our ears.

Now headed east, an intense feeling of resignation came over me. I started to rehash and question my decisions. Should I have flown the night before at this time of year? Could I have foreseen such a crazy delay? Did I do everything I needed to do to put myself in a position for success on this race? I was upset but I was taking it out on myself. I wanted to punch a seat. I joked with the flight attendants who asked me not to. I obliged.

Standing at the back of the plane, trapped without communication at 25,000 feet, I felt helpless. I tried to ignore that I would need to explain this to my client by getting into a conversation with the flight attendants. They were in good spirits. My inner voice explained their calmness as being “on the clock” and that they wouldn’t have to deal with the same consequences I would. I started to try to justify my bad mood.

And then, my feeling of helplessness bothered me more than the circumstances I found myself in. I became defiant. I looked at the flight attendants and said: “forget this! I’m going to make this work!” (Ummm..  the f-word I used wasn’t “forget”.)

I went back to my seat and pulled out my laptop and started preparing emails with the clues and instructions for my staff on the ground in Toronto. The clues would need to be reprinted and materials would need to be delivered, but I certainly wasn’t going to accomplish anything useful by brooding or feeling sorry for myself.

As soon as we landed, I took the front seat of the plane, connected to the airport’s Wi-Fi and sent the e-mails. I called my awesome staff and race partners and explained what they needed to do to make this work. We were on the ground for about 35 minutes, and I used every single one of them to be in productive communication. I was committed to making this work regardless of the circumstances.

I called my client (interrupting his presentation at his company meeting), explained the situation and reiterated my commitment to making this work. We agreed to postpone the race start by an hour. Bolstered by his flexibility and generous understanding, I got right back to making the necessary adjustments.

By the time we were up in the air again, this time with a very confident confirmation from the pilot that we would not be back in Montreal, I was cautiously optimistic. This was a freaky, unexpected situation that forced me to let go of the reins, relinquish control, and put my trust and faith in my partners. Though I absolutely love what I do for a living, I have had a lot of trouble doing this in the past. This company is my proverbial “baby” and I have been meticulous about making sure that nothing bad happens to it.

In this situation, it was absolutely clear that if we were to see success in this event, I would need to lean on others rather than do it all on my own. There was only so much I could do over the next 55 minutes in the sky and I did all of it, just in case. Ultimately, though, it was my staff and partners who came through and made this race happen.

I could not be more grateful for their listening, partnership, and can-do attitude. Thank you to Lee, Willard, Debby, and Frances for helping turn a very unfortunate situation into a wonderful learning experience. Through Amazing Race Canada, I have designed engaging challenges to teach effective problem solving skills, but this one was more challenging than any I have dreamed up.

I was recently told that “attitude is altitude”. Looking back, I will not soon forget how a change of attitude at an altitude of 25,000 feet changed the course of this fateful day. Sure, our circumstances have an effect on our lives, but having (and keeping) a positive attitude can overcome some of the most challenging situations we might encounter.

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4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Pam RossLeadership Lessons at 25,000 Feet - Pam Ross

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