November 2022, Virtual
21 November 2022, Hilton London Metropole
The ash cloud crisis that grounded aircraft across Europe last spring brought to light a number of significant flaws in managed travel programmes. Issues regarding traveller tracking, booking processes and inventory management proved that both corporates and suppliers were still vulnerable in times of emergency such as this.
The Institute of Travel & Meetings (ITM) responded by bringing together industry leaders to form the Phoenix Group and, following months of consultation and analysis, publishing a report for the corporate travel sector, entitled The Eyjafjallajökull Imperative.
According to the report, many of the travel management problems arising from last April's crisis stemmed from traveller behaviour. Stranded travellers used their initiative and ingenuity to make their own way back to their homes and offices, but were consequently lost to the tracking systems designed to enable them to receive professional help and advice.
Back home, those with planned trips jammed phone lines and clogged in-boxes as they sought to rearrange their schedules - hampering communications with colleagues stuck overseas.
Ideas to mitigate the effects of travellers' understandable concerns include loading call-centre phone lines with recorded messages to dissuade enquiries from those with upcoming trips, establishing dedicated emergency lines for distressed travellers needing assistance, and holding a daily conference call to update stranded employees.
"Managers' ability to contact travellers was further hampered at the height of the crisis by a relatively simple oversight," the report adds. One of the contributing buyers admitted to being "surprised and concerned at the amount of out-of-date, inaccurate phone numbers and email addresses in the company's files - employees simply hadn't bothered to amend the contact details held in their passenger profiles".
There is criticism, too, of the way legislative and regulatory bodies responded to the crisis - both during and after the event; the report suggests that because no lives were at risk, there was a general lack of urgency from those in authority.
However, in his introduction to the report, ITM chairman Jamie Hindhaugh stresses: "It is not the ITM's intention to apportion blame, although the ash-cloud raises many important questions about the ability of the relevant regulatory organisations to garner pertinent information and then disseminate it, and about the wisdom of their subsequent actions and inactions.
"The key lesson for them - and for those in the wider travel industry community - is that everyone involved and affected, to one degree or another, failed. None of us can guarantee not to fail again in the future; but we should at least attempt to do better next time.
"The ash cloud was, in effect, a trial run. We should all take its lessons and work hard to learn from it."
Company bosses need to be persuaded to implement crisis management policies, ideally specifically related to travel, the ITM report warns.
"There is no merit whatsoever in waiting for the next crisis to occur before calling in expert opinion," the report authors argue. "The ash-cloud claimed no lives, thanks entirely to the fact that no-one was allowed anywhere near it.
"Next time it may well be a different story, and the company that has refused to learn from this experience is likely to face intense scrutiny - and, potentially, massively-damaging prosecution."
The report also suggests that, in formulating crisis management strategies, travel managers - and organisations such as the ITM - should consult other industries on best-practice issues.
"The fiasco surrounding the Deepwater Horizon disaster notwithstanding, the oil industry generally has a deep-seated crisis management culture, from which the travel industry could learn a great deal."
Similarly, regulatory bodies such as the UK Civil Aviation Authority and, in this case, the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, should make greater use of bodies such as the ITM as communications channels - too many companies, the report complains, were reduced to gleaning sketchy, second-hand updates from radio and television news broadcasts.
"As ready-made, efficient channels of communication between the authorities and those on the travel front line, such organisations could have been used to great effect," the report suggests.