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The Miracle on the Hudson and Great Decision-making

Updated: Jul 7, 2023

Where were you on January 15, 2009? Let's journey back in time. The United States was in economic turmoil. The financial crisis was raging and the global economy was collapsing. Just a few months earlier, Lehman Brothers, one of the largest investment banks of the day, spectacularly collapsed. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the symbols of the homeownership "American Dream," became insolvent. Tens of millions of homeowners were delinquent on their mortgages and faced potential foreclosure. Even more, people faced unemployment and other economic uncertainties.

The departing Bush administration had worked to stabilize the economy, but the unemployment rate was stubbornly high and consumer confidence was at historic lows. Obama had just been elected and was being sworn into office that week. It takes months for a new president to put their cabinet in place and build effective momentum. The country was at a low point not seen since the Great Depression.

Then IT happened. A high-profile event reminding people that real miracles DO happen. It was an event bringing hope to so many. The timing could not have been better. On January 15, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 left New York City's LaGuardia airport on a standard flight to Charlotte, North Carolina. Not long after take-off, the plane encountered a flock of birds causing both engines to fail. The plane was too far from LaGuardia or any of the other New York airports to safely return. This airliner better resembled a 60-ton bomb with a 3-minute timer. This short-fuse bomb was gliding over one of the most populous cities in the world.

Then the miracle occurred. Captain Chelsea "Sully" Sullenberger and his crew landed the utterly disabled plane on the Hudson River. [i] All passengers and crew walked away with few injuries. Sully made the seemingly audacious decision to land a hobbled commercial airliner on a river. How could that ever make sense? There must have been better options! Why did the plane not cartwheel? How did the passengers get rescued before the plane sank into the hypothermic water? While there were certainly miraculous elements to the Sully story, much of the flight forensics has since revealed the true hero of the story: Excellent Decision-making.

When people think of great decision-making, they usually think of the decision or the decision-maker after the fact. They think of people like Sully, who quickly and effectively made amazing choices that saved so many lives. Those of us in the decision sciences and behavioral sciences appreciate a great decision and a great decision-maker is a product of a great process in place prior to the choice. Great decision-makers are a product of great decision processes. Without a great process, no matter how talented the decision-maker, the probability of making a great decision drops significantly.

A great decision starts with effective data curation. Great decisions include quickly ingesting and processing information. We call it curation because the decision-maker must decide from an overwhelming amount of information, what information is most important, and weigh that information. In the decision sciences world, this is known as weighing criteria. In an organizational setting, groups of stakeholders must come together to provide criteria input from multiple perspectives. This often adds complexity to the decision.

In recent times, one of the most famous examples of successful data curation and great decision-making is when Sully landed that commercial airliner on the Hudson River. He had less than 3 minutes to make decisions that would directly impact hundreds of lives and potentially impact millions of lives in New York City. The biggest unsung hero of this fantastic event was the Airbus A320's cockpit display. It allows pilots to quickly understand a small number of critical airplane measures, like airspeed and flight angle. [ii] This enables the pilot to make quick and effective decisions. The cockpit display had been designed based on thousands of hours of measure and criteria testing. The Airbus designers created a display that intuitively delivers the most important information to the pilot decision-maker.

In the decision sciences world, the cockpit display design is known as "choice architecture." Getting the choice architecture right is a critical enabler of the best outcomes. In the case of this flight, it enabled Sully to quickly "load shed." This is a pilot's focusing action when only the most vital information is needed. Sully was able to quickly load shed unimportant details and focus upon the highest weighted information to choose the best alternative and to make the best decision. The cockpit display delivered to Sully exactly what he needed to know and when he needed to know it. Please see the notes section for an A320 display rendering available to Sully.

The outcome was “The Miracle on the Hudson.” A perfect landing on the unusually calm Hudson River that day. They landed in front of commuter ferries that quickly mobilized to save all aboard as the airplane sank into the frigid water. If Captain Sully had been busy contemplating multiple flight vector alternatives, he may have missed the opportunity to land on the river.

Focusing on the decision process and choice architecture is a hallmark of good decision-makers and good decisions. The decision process should enable people and organizations to implement an effective and customizable choice architecture. The best decision process delivers DECISION A.C.T.:

  • Accelerated. Decisions need to be made quickly and fit the timing cadence needs. Often, new information becomes available that needs to be quickly integrated and decisioned.

  • Confidence-inspired. The process builds consensus and increases confidence and buy-in to organizational decisions.

  • Transparency-enabled. The process provides reporting and artifacts, resulting in complete decision reasoning and outcome records. Good especially for “second-guessers” like internal auditors, boards, or regulators.

Reader Resource: Apps and related tools help you assess key criteria and value in the service of making great decisions. Objectively assessing your utility and alternative costs are central to making the best decision. Especially, before making any purchase or important decision. See the following app:



[i] Wodtke, Sully Speaks Out, History Net, 2016

Dr. Johnson presents a nice rendering of the simple yet powerful A320 cockpit display available to Sully. "The goal is to include the most pertinent information in the display while minimizing unnecessary complexity."


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