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The Truth Shall Set You Free

Engineering facts don't lie or sugarcoat, so neither should you

4 min read

On a cold afternoon in January 1992, I drove a company car eastward toward Long Island and one of the most difficult moments in my career. I was a ”sacrificial lamb”; no other executive or higher-up accompanied me on the 2-hour drive. I had been summoned by U.S. Representative Thomas Downey to explain why my employer, JFK International Airport, was standing in the way of a deal to save Pan American World Airway’s major maintenance base even though the company, bankrupt for a year, had ceased operations the month before.

The ill-fated airline had already decided it could no longer run the base, jeopardizing thousands of jobs, many held by Congressman Downey’s New York state constituents. One rumor was that the airport was asking for too high a price for the lease, scaring away potential suitors for the base. In reality, we at the airport had quickly formed a small team to find a way to keep the base—and those jobs—alive. I was in charge. We learned as much as we could about aircraft maintenance. In just two weeks’ time, we prepared and sent a detailed brochure to a dozen world-class maintenance organizations around the globe. And we were getting serious responses.

I arrived at Congressman Downey’s office. It was so crowded with people—his staff, various constituents, and union leaders—that a narrow aisle had been carved between chairs. As I walked this gauntlet, it reminded me of nothing so much as the scene of a ”dead man walking” to the electric chair, with the congressman as executioner and everyone else witnesses.

But Downey, lanky and boyish, stood up and offered me his hand and a warm smile. ”Glad to meet you, Carl. Thanks for coming all the way out here to meet with us. We really appreciate it.” His was the only smile I could see. Everyone introduced themselves. I forced myself to smile at each person as best I could, to make a personal connection.

I told the group how Pan Am had approached us out of the blue, teetering on bankruptcy. I explained how we had ramped up to understand the situation and about our aggressive marketing strategy. I made no assurances of success. I spoke plainly—no graphics or slides or handouts—and mentioned by name the many major organizations we were talking to. I looked in everyone’s eyes and told them that we realized how many of their jobs were at stake. I finished.

Silence. Surprisingly, no one had any questions—but at the same time no one attacked me. I hoped I had defused their anger that the airport was to blame for Pan Am’s problems. The congressman said that he now had a different impression of the situation. Everyone was depressed. I, on the other hand, was relaxed—I had made our case.

Downey asked me if I could stay for an evening meeting with a bigger group—much bigger, it would turn out. I was eager to get home and put this behind me, at least for the night, but then I thought about the many people worried about their jobs. I agreed to stay.

Several hundred unhappy people turned out. The room reeked with anger and frustration. This was going to be no PTA meeting. The congressman took the podium. He first tried to encourage his constituents, then quickly introduced me: ”I asked the airport people to come out to explain to us what’s going on, and Carl Selinger here has briefed us earlier this afternoon. I’ve asked him to tell you all what he told us. Carl?”

I never spoke before an angrier audience, then or since. Again, I offered no stories or jokes, just the bare facts. A few minutes into my talk, a man suddenly stood up and yelled ”Liar!” And then he really got into it, shouting even more loudly, ” Freaking liar! You can’t believe those greedy airport sons of bitches.” This ignited the crowd into more yelling. I stopped. I did not know what to say, so I said nothing.

Downey leaped to his feet and grabbed the microphone. ”Okay, hold on there, quiet down!” It took him a minute to restore calm. ”I want to tell you all something. We need to appreciate that the airport has sent Carl all the way out here to try to explain the situation to us and help us find some solutions. From what I heard this afternoon, the airport does not appear to me to be the villain here. In fact, they are doing things to try to help. Now, Carl has a long drive home to New Jersey, so do you want to hear him, or should I just let him leave now?”

I spoke without further disruption, and I stayed as the group wrestled with the issues, with no satisfaction or closure. It was indeed a long ride home.

A year later we succeeded in finding one suitor for the base and had an agreement in place to maintain the Pan Am fleet after it was absorbed by Delta Airlines. The deal fell apart soon after Delta acquired Pan Am, and the base closed forever.

My work was for naught, except for one lesson I never forgot. If you’ve done your job well, you should also be unafraid to face a crowd, however hostile. Whether to a handful of executives or hundreds of workers, explain the facts as clearly as you can, and then let the chips fall where they may.

About the Author

Carl Selinger is an aviation consultant and adjunct professor of civil engineering at The Cooper Union, in New York City. He is the author of Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School (Wiley, 2004) and a regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum on the subject of professional development.

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