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Ash cloud 2010: the lessons learned

April 27, 2011
Author: Eve-Marie Morgo
This time last year, Europe suffered travel disruption on an unprecedented scale. Not since World War II had the European airspace been paralysed to that extent. And the ash cloud’s devastating effects were felt throughout the transport chain. As planes were grounded, passengers and freight operators looked to alternative methods of travel with the net result being gridlock throughout Europe.
The weeks and months that followed have allowed the travel industry to take stock of events and I am sure they have spent time thinking of ways to best deal with crises in the future, whether they by on the ash cloud's scale, or not. Dutch rail operator, NsHiSpeed was one of those who drew important lessons from the ash cloud. At last year’s Amadeus Total Rail Customer Forum, NsHiSpeed’s Head of Sales, Ron Heeren gave us an insight into the conclusions his company had come to.

For Ron, it’s clear that events had a very negative impact on the travel industry with the situation for passengers at the time an extremely difficult one. Grounded planes and days of uncertainty meant train waiting lines increased as time went by.

Four important lessons stand out for Ron:
  1. It’s essential to have good managers, capable of dealing with a situation of this magnitude. Every situation is different and good managers are those who can deal with each and every one of them.
  2. Passengers want to be informed on the go and as such, mobile technologies are playing an increasingly important role in the travel industry.
  3. Additional capacity is important, but it’s only half of the story. Loading and filling these additional carriages is equally important if you are to stay on top of the situation.
  4. You need a greater number of trained staff and you cannot afford to depend on your core service staff. At NsHiSpeed, they’ve created a back-up team that can be sent out into stations if needed.

With regards to mobile technology going forward, pair it with social media and the travel industry has an incredible tool at its disposal to deal with crises.

Social media allows travel companies to start conversations with their customers. It allows companies to keep these customers informed 24 hours a day, wherever they may be. With mobile devices in the hands of so many, the opportunities for information on the go are almost endless. Consumers use Twitter for status updates and to ask questions, for example. And they expect answers. For NsHiSpeed, this is not a threat, but rather an opportunity to exploit. They view Twitter, Facebook, etc…as an additional channel through which to distribute information. And they’ve created a new social media e-commerce team to do just that. Four staff members are on hand to monitor tweets and answer them on the spot. The question is whether or not in times of increased volumes, companies will be able to manage the constant flow of customer questions and demands. Maybe working with others in the travel industry is the solution? 
Indeed, Ron states partnerships are key to successfully dealing with large scale events like the ash cloud. Regardless of which industry you work in, be it air or rail, you need to act together, as one, to respond effectively.

Those concerned have to have a flexible mindset, willing to adopt, for example, a technical platform that encourages partnerships, whilst allowing for competition.


Achieving a viable model like this is where the real challenge lies, but once it’s in place, crisis management will become an easy task.


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