How Bureaucracy Can Kill

Last week, 154 people came within minutes of losing their lives. The cause of this near-death experience? Bureaucracy.

On July 23, Allegiant Airlines Flight 426 radioed to air traffic control in Fargo, N.D., upon approach. The pilot told the tower he was critically low on fuel and needed clearance to land within the next five minutes.

Air traffic control (ATC) denied the request since a Blue Angels air show rehearsal was underway. ATC suggested the plane land elsewhere. Here’s how the conversation unfolded (transcript from

PILOT: “We don’t have enough fuel to go anywhere else.” 

ATC: “There’ll be a window of opening in about 20 minutes for landing.”

PILOT: “Yeah, I don’t have 20 minutes.”

ATC: “There’s an airport about 70 miles away that could work.”

PILOT: “Listen,” the pilot said, “We’re at bingo (pilot lingo for “zero”) fuel here in about, probably three or four minutes. I gotta come in and land.”

ATC: “I’d have to have you declare an emergency for that,” ATC responded, “and we would coordinate to get you in.

The pilot declared an air emergency and the plane landed safely. The whole dialogue, however, illustrates what can happen when rules and regulations overpower common sense. After the scare, finger pointing and blame ensued. The tower blamed the airline — they should have known the runway was in use and should have had extra fuel. The airline blamed procedure — they were delayed 90 minutes out of their origin city and had followed FAA guidelines. Everyone was quick to find fault, but slow to craft better solutions for the future.

The “shoulds” overpowered the “coulds.”

It’s easy to hide behind senseless policies in the moment, but the negative crater left behind can be catastrophic. The fallout of broken relationships, lost customers, burnt opportunities, damaged companies, or in this case… even loss of life are just not worth it. Simply put — bureaucracy kills.

As you lead, commit to a policy of thoughtfulness rather than blind compliance. Proven processes certainly play an important role in organizations but they can’t override common sense. The Ritz Carlton empowers any employee at any level to solve a customer problem on the spot at a cost of up to $1,000. They trust their employees and care enough about their customers to let human judgment trump paper-pushing checklists. How does that compare to paragraph 3, subsection A12 of your operating manual?

To enjoy long-term, sustainable success, craft your policies to have enough flexibility so that your team can do the right thing, not just the easy thing. In the words of Ross Perot, “If you see a snake just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”