The Travel Adviser: Amid the ash

How airlines dealt with the volcanic cloud.

Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano 58 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano 58
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The first sign that it was going to be a challenging day was when Liora e-mailed saying that Easy Jet had just cancelled her flight from London to Israel and could I find a solution. Charter flights are notorious for cancelling and delaying flights, but easyJet’s introduction into the crowded skies between here and England had the two regular scheduled airlines, British Airways and El Al, a little concerned. EasyJet found a niche market for inexpensive fares and passengers for the most part were satisfied.
The reason for easyJet’s cancellation, though, wasn’t a work stoppage or a problem with crew or aircraft, but one of the most original reasons I had ever heard. Her aircraft wasn’t equipped to fly through a cloud of volcanic ash. Laughing out loud, I thought that someone was pulling my leg, but after a quick look at the Internet I realized that my day was quickly going to turn into a daze of grounded aircraft and befuddled passengers.
It’s too early to reach far ranging conclusions, but suffice it to say that government bureaucrats’ mixed with aggressive airline executives’ decisions led to six days that shook up the world. The repercussions and financial losses are estimated at more than $1 billion, but I’m more concerned with how airlines dealt with it.
Let’s start with El Al. As British airspace started to shut down, El Al decided to force the issue and sent 325 passengers on a Boeing 747 from Tel Aviv to London. The flight took off with the clear knowledge that take offs from Heathrow had been suspended, but El Al decided to see how far it could push the envelope. Three hours into the flight it had its answer.
El Al was informed that under no circumstances would it be permitted to enter UK airspace and the plane returned to Ben-Gurion Airport. All the passengers disembarked and, best of all, not one piece of luggage went astray. Clients at the airport frantically contacted El Al personnel, who informed them with a broad smile that they had purchased a round trip flight, had received a round trip flight and thus their tickets were null and void.
This was the only error El Al made throughout the entire crisis. After receiving dozens of complaints, El Al quickly reversed course and announced that all passengers could either use their tickets in the future or receive a full refund. Passengers still lost hotel bookings, rental car cancellation fees and holiday package deposits, but these were not in the domain of El Al. No travelers’ insurance policy covered these losses either.
It must be said that after this early faux pas, El Al went into what can only be termed full military mode. Operating around the clock, it sent updates to clients and travel agents detailing exactly which flights were operating with exact estimates of space availability. It was in constant touch with passengers throughout the ordeal, and as the skies reopened did its utmost to bring clients to their original destination or retrieve them from European cities. As in most crises, El Al outshone its competitors.
The Draymens’ adventure had just begun. Deciding to take advantage of airlines that permit a free stop in Europe on the way to the US, they had purchased a ticket using a combination of Czech Air and Delta Airlines. Flying initially to Prague, their schedule was to spend three days in the bustling city and then fly into JFK. Their hotel was reserved, their time in the Czech Republic was filled with sightseeing, but as they were ready to fly to New York, they were informed that the threat of ash had grounded their flight.
One day swiftly turned into five, with hotel and out of pocket expenses continuing to grow. Moreover they were caught in a double bind. Once the day of their scheduled flight had passed, those passengers holding confirmed reservations on the next available flight were, of course, permitted to fly and the Draymens were put at the back of the waiting list. Contacting their travel consultant, he informed them that some Spanish and Italian airports were still open and to try to rearrange their flight schedule to fly from Prague to Rome or Madrid, then connect to a flight to the US. Alas all flights were completely full and an entire week passed before they could find space on a flight.
They will be compensated for their out of pocket expenses. Czech Air falls under the auspices of the European Union. Cancelled flights, for whatever reason, do result in passengers being compensated. In fact if the airline is based in the EU, the airline must, by law, provide food and drink and hotel accommodations. There is no time or monetary limit on this assistance, as European airlines are now discovering.
The problem is that there is no mechanism to force the European airlines to make payment. So if the passengers who have been denied these rights do not receive full financial compensation, they will have to take the airlines to small claims court to receive remittance. While the airlines are saying these claims are unfair, the law is the law. This is a large factor why so many airlines are now requiring government financial aid.
From this vantage point, the hardest hit were clients stranded in England. Most travel agencies spent endless hours during this crisis imploring their passengers to leave the island and get to the Continent. With the full knowledge that they had to go east to find open airports, astute clients made their way across the English Channel to France. From France, they headed south to Spain or east to Italy.
In fact there were three types of clients who emerged during the six days.
There was the client who took it in stride, realized it truly was something not under his or her control and as frustrating as it was to be so impotent, there was nothing that could be done. For these types, it became a waiting game.
There was the client who demanded that the airports reopen, beseechedtravel consultants to get them on completely booked flights, insistedthat they were important people with important matters and that asolution must be found. For these types, it became a wailing game.
Finally there were the clients who reacted to every rumor as if it weremanna from heaven. This airport is opening up; this airline is resumingflights. Calls, text messages, e-mails flew frantically throughout theday and night in a desperate attempt to find a flight. For these types,it became a wincing game.
Those of you who were not involved can take solace that you did nothave to discover to which category you belong and how you would havereacted!
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.