Saturday, April 24, 2010

ERP 201 ... Volcanic Ash and Beyond

The last week was a time of revelations, it showed how fragile was the air transportation system was. A volcanic ash cloud over Europe closed the airspace grounding the majority of the airlines in that region. It also affected almost every airline in the world. The losses to the industry was USD 1.7 Billion in a week, imagine if it went on longer. This is what the airline lost and does not account for what other industries that relied on air cargo across the world lost.

That week was in a way an educational week. It showed how airlines and ancillary services reacted, some with compassion others just followed the rule book. Nevertheless, there are several lessons to be learnt here.

1.The airline industry is very global and very vulnerable to disruptions. The closure of the European airspace affected airlines across the world. The industry just stood gawking helplessly, at what potentially was its own demise, as losses mounted at the rate of USD 200 millions a day. No contingency plan or business continuity plan was effective. This was a scenario that no one foresaw, the airlines had no idea what to do with passengers, staff or aircraft. There were no protocols for the testing of volcanic ash and its potential effect on aircraft engines and airframes. The health impact was not even addressed.

2.Emergency Response; I bet no airline Emergency Response Plan catered for such a disruption. The traditional means of communications, although important were not adequate to cope with the scope of the disruption and the amount of queries. The traditional media, print, radio, TV and even websites were not fast enough or real time to respond to an evolving situation which increased in number and complexity, with each day bringing on more stranded passengers to the already chaotic scene. Enter Social Media to the rescue with Twitter and Facebook playing a major role allowing airlines and Eurocontrol to interact with passengers and to give up to date information and responding to questions in real time. Several airlines refined their internal social media processes to meet the challenge.
Every airline must review its Emergency Response Plan to take into account of such or similar disruption. The last time this volcano erupted it lasted for more than a year. However, the most important revision should be in Communications. It is a must that Social Media be acknowledged as a means of responding to crises and keeping passengers and their families and friends along with all other stake holders in the information loop. It should not by any means replace press conferences, call centers and other media channels.

3.Protocols and processes must be agreed by all stake holders (authorities, OEMs and airlines) to test and gauge the safety impact of volcanic ash on people's health and aircraft safety, allowing flights to operate in the presence of the ash.

4.Just like the airlines, Import/Export businesses that rely on air transport for their survival, must look again at their contingency and continuity plans and act accordingly.

Let us not waste a good crises.


  1. Dear Oussama,

    Great summary of a caotic week from an expert's point of you. I agree that it was surprising that none of the airlines had an emergency plan in place, neither for operations nor for communications. This really came as a shock to me considering how vulnerable the aviation industry is to any sort of threat. They have concentrated so much on scanning possible terrorists that they completely forgot things like mother nature. This poor performance does not give a lot of hope for other tragedies.

    The communication was somewhat bad, too. Media here in Europe updated their Facebook and Twitter accounts extremely frequently - actually so frequently that people who were not affected complained after a while about those news blocking their streams. The airlines itself, as per your words, did not do the same. I did not check on this, yet I agree that Social Media is the way how those news are being communicated speedily nowadays. People who are stuck might have a smart phone or a laptop with them so that they can keep themselves updated. The fact that airlines refined their Social Media process in the middle of the "tragedy" can be seen as both ridiculous and a sign of hope :-).

    To wrap it up, I personally do hope that people used this week to think about our lives nowadays. Is it really neccessary to go by plane that frequently? In Europe, distances are short and infrastructure is so good that one can go to any major city by high speed train fast and comfortably. This especially is valid for domestic flights, which, count in the trip to the airport and the waiting time at departure and arrival, very often take more time than a trip by train. And they produce much more CO2.

    I do not blame holiday makers who suffered during what might have been their only trip abroad this year. I blame all those business jetters who spend more time in planes and airports than in the office and with their family.

    Cheers & thanks again for this summary,


  2. Thanks Gaby

    You are so right about the transportation infrastructure in Europe. One of the criticisms against the airlines that they never tried to get passengers into Spain, Portugal or Italy and then arrange transportation to final destination. It was only Air France that operated some departures from Toulouse

  3. I totally agree with you Gaby!

    But a crisis is also a good time to steal a march over your competitors and improve your brand by offering extras to your customers like free food, water, showers, lie flat beds (Singapore Airport)...


  4. Dear Oussama:
    Nicely and professionally said as usual.
    I would love to see as well your insightful comments posted on the discussion I initiated at the LI Aviation Professionals group, you can see it here:

    All the best,,,



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