Volcanic Situation – Behind The Scenes Of A Global Travel Meltdown
Take Off eh

By Bruce Parkinson

Air Canada V.P. Sales Claude Morin sums up the situation in one succinct line: ‘Just when we thought we’d seen it all.’

A volcanic eruption in Iceland has spawned a travel crisis the likes of which the world has never experienced. Airline emergency task forces, flight operations, airport management and governments have been in a group huddle for the last week without much effect. Mother Nature is in charge and the rest of us have to wait.

TakeOffeh.com has waded into the logistical nightmare created by the cancellation of thousands of daily flights over an entire continent. Some analysts are predicting the loss for airlines could be up to $1 billion. In the airline world, a parked plane is a very expensive piece of equipment.

But it’s not just airlines that are affected. Around the world, travel agents have been putting in extra hours trying to find alternative arrangements for their clients.  Cruise lines are scrambling to get passengers to their ships. Exporters of perishable goods such as fresh produce and flowers are hurting. Airport limos are empty and airport retailers singing the blues.

As is typical in a travel crisis, travel agents are at the centre of the storm, fielding calls from panicked clients on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, agents are spending a lot of time explaining that no one really knows what comes next. The situation is unprecedented.

‘The repercussions are enormous,’ says Elizabeth Rodgers, office manager for corporate travel specialist McCartern Travel in Belleville, Ontario. Rodgers says the agency has been besieged by calls from customers. ‘For many clients, no is not an option. The mindset is they have to be there. They insist on getting to their meeting or conference. We are doing our best, but there is nothing we can do short of flying the planes. People are not exactly being awesome about it.’

Lesley Keyter of Calgary’s The Travel Lady says she is getting calls from previous clients who are stranded but booked their flights directly and not with her. She doesn’t have access to their files, so there’s not much she can do. ‘We insist our clients buy travel insurance, so thankfully they are all covered,’ Keyter says.

RBC Insurance V.P. Mark Linton says the company ‘is going to extreme lengths to cover clients.’  The company’s ‘interruptions’ insurance covers volcanic eruptions. ‘It’s a new world out there, and we have to adapt our policies to reflect the needs of our clients,’ Linton says. The Travel Lady’s Keyter says RBC’s interruption policy helped them reroute a passenger from Johannesburg via Buenos Aires, to Dallas, and eventually to Calgary.

Air Canada’s Morin says the situation is dramatic. When the crisis began last Wednesday, the airline created a ‘Crisis Cell’ within its System Operations Control department, with representatives of each area of operations, from flight operations to maintenance. It’s the same process that kicks in during a bad snowstorm.

Senior people from each department take over crisis management, while staff members continue to run day-to-day flights. Employees are tasked to seek alternate plans and work to protect passengers. The extraordinary challenge of this situation is that there has been little indication of when European flying can begin again. ‘We learn from past crises,’ says Morin. ‘As shocking as 9/11 was, there was certainty that flights will resume.  The volcanic situation is, well, volcanic. There is continued uncertainty.’

Although the situation is not in anyone’s control, Air Canada has done its best to minimize negative impact on passengers, Morin says. The airline has loosened rules on rebookings and cancellations and covered hotels and meals for impacted passengers through Sunday, which it is not required to do.

While IATA and some airlines have questioned the blanket shutdown of airspace in as many as 30 countries, industry insiders spoken to by Take Off eh say erring on the side of caution is the prudent course. ‘I’m not an expert, but certainly the right thing to do is not to compromise on safety,’ says Morin. Goway Travel’s Bruce Hodge agrees: ‘I don’t think there is such a thing as going overboard when it comes to safety.’

One of the only positives from the volcanic situation is that it comes before the peak summer travel season to Europe, and before the European cruise business ramps up to full capacity. That didn’t help Winnipeg travel agent Ron Pradinuk, however, as he was stranded in Toronto for two days as he attempted to get to Venice for a Mediterranean cruise that left yesterday without him.

‘As a travel agent I have seen and helped dozens of people stranded by weather delays, most often caused by blizzards or wind storms,’ Pradinuk says. ‘Today I now have a much greater appreciation for what our clients have felt as they looked for means, any means, to get them to their destinations as close as possible to the initial scheduled times.’

While some European air traffic is expected to resume today, the backlog of stranded travellers is immense. Anyone with travel plans to Europe is advised to double-check with their airline before leaving home. 

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