Flight Chaos poses serious Business Continuity challenges


The Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajoekull erupted on the 14th April hurling a plume of ash high into the atmosphere and grounding flights affecting nearly seven million travellers. 
Within hours of the decision to ground planes businesses started to count the cost with peoples travel plans collapsing and many becoming effectively stranded. The impact of the volcanic eruption is already being estimated as costing airlines £130million per day, although rail, ferry and some hotel operators are reporting massive increases in business as alternative arrangements are sought. 
The Met Office is forecasting that the prevailing weather conditions generating the Ash Spread will likely remain until the end of the week and perhaps longer. 
The blanket ban on flights arises from experience gained from a number of instances where volcanic ash entered the engines of two flights (British and Singapore airways) in 1982 over indonesia and subsequently in 1989 a KLM flight in Alaska. In addition a number of private jets are reported as crashing from the impact of Volcanic Ash.  In these instances the Ash caused engines to fail by affecting critical ventilation and causing a build up of a glasslike deposit on the internal surfaces of the engine. 
These incidents lead to a changes to policy and emergency procedures.  In addition to the potential risk of engine damage, visibility was severely compromised as the Ash ‘sandblasted’ the pilots forward windows.
Airlines have undertaken test flights to try and assess more current data on the potential in order to contest the widespread grounding orders now covering much of Europe. British Airways test flight included in the crew their Chief Executive, Willie Walsh, and there were no reported problems during the flight and the aircraft is now undergoing a full technical examination at the Cardiff facility.
Coming at the end of the Easter period many organisations are likely to see absences of staff returning from holidays as well as disruption to future travel plans arising from the backlog of travellers.  We have already seen some airlines forecasting the earliest  available flights for travellers being well into next week and these fully admitted to be at best ‘guessimates’.    What is clear is that anyone needing to travel int the coming week or two (at least) had better be thinking of alternatives or rearranging their plans.
Beyond the impact on travellers the grounding of flights will also now start impacting on the supply of goods and products shipped by air.  Already numerous bone marrow transplants have been delayed and fresh food delivery affected, but also international shipments of critical spare parts and other high value items are being affected.   
In government offices around Europe ministers are looking at the options of dealing with the situation.  The challenge is how to balance the risk getting it right will mean allowing a partial managed lift of the total flight bans and maximising the potential use of the airspace easing the strain on the Airlines and their passengers as well as opening up the international supply channels.  Getting it wrong could mean either a continuation of the flight bans and having evidence submitted later of no risk to flights or, and a worst case scenario a major air crash with all the tragedy and risks that creates, not just to passengers but those on the ground. 
Another perhaps relevant point to raise is the effect of a mass transfer to road travel, last seen after 9/11, whereby subsequent research by Cornell University saw road deaths rise by some 1200 in the months following 9/11.
What can be done now?
We have long advocated that Business Continuity  planning for the loss of personnel and disruption to organisations travel, transport and logistic capabilities needs very careful consideration and hopefully these topics have been addressed in your planning, perhaps as a result of looking at the potential impact of a Pandemic.  Well here is the chance to seen how well they perform.
Business Continuity Managers should be working with colleagues looking at the challenges they are facing both now and in the immediate future. 
Areas to consider are:
Staff stranded - how you support and recover them, including potentially relocating them to other international offices as a temporary measure. 
Business travel coming up - use of teleconference and other virtual meeting systems. Prioritisation of travel of executives and staff addressing the ‘necessity‘ balanced against the benefits and risk of added impact (cost/risk)
Critical supplies - Assess goods and products that are airfreighted and immediately seek alternative sources, placing supply orders where time/impact factors generate high cost/value impact on the organisation.  This should be connected with consideration of Service Level Agreements and customer/supplier relationships. 
Communication - if you are likely to be affected, tell your stakeholders and work together to manage the situation.  If not tell them this too, it might avoid confusion and misunderstanding.
Speak to potential customers who may be affected and show how you may be able to help. Use your planning and capability to differentiate your organisation as a quality partner, it may generate additional business now, but it’ll certainly help your reputation and image the next time you are bidding!