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Volcanic disruption - learning from last year's experience 

As CRJ went to press last week, news began to emerge of the Grimsvötn volcanic eruption in Iceland, and fears of further aviation disruption have now materialised, though these were not as severe as during last April’s crisis and most flights have now returned to normal.

Our next issue (published soon) features an extended article looking at developments and lessons learnt a year after the April 2010 eruption on Mount Eyjafjallajökull, which spewed volcanic ash to a height of 30,000 feet across a huge area, from the UK to Spain and Northern Africa.

The ash cloud let to thousands of cancelled flights, the closure of more than 300 airports and extreme disruption to hundreds more. Millions of passengers were affected, many of them stuck at overcrowded airports.

We speak to Žarko Sivcev, who advises the COO at Eurocontrol’s recently-established Network Management Directorate. He helped to develop and implement Eurocontrol’s Central Flow Management Unit and has been involved in the ICAO/EUR/ANT Volcanic Ash Task Force and the ICAO International Volcanic Task Force. He was co-leader of the ICAO Volcanic Ash exercise, VOLCEX 11/01, which took place this April.

Ironically, the Volcanic Ash Contingency Plan for Europe was prompted by an eruption of the Grimsvötn volcano in Iceland in 2004.

One of the measures that Žarko describes is the establishment of the European Aviation Crisis Co-ordination Cell (EACCC) which was activated for the first time ever in response to this latest Grimsvötn eruption.

The article also looks at the effects of mass flight cancellations on airports themselves – what happens when buildings that are designed to process the efficient throughput of thousands of passengers suddenly have to house those people for prolonged periods of time?

Some of the most important lessons in this sector revolve around preserving the comfort and dignity of those affected (which is also good business sense in the long run). All stakeholders at an airport must be involved in planning resilience activities for such eventualities.

And by all stakeholders, we mean just that: from airlines, ground handling staff, refuelling and ramp operators, to immigration, catering companies, restaurants, shops and providers of sanitation services.

But what of the air carrier whose operations were right at the epicentre of the crisis? In this article, CRJ also speaks to Birkir Holm Gudnason, CEO of Icelandair, and Guðjón Arngrímsson, VP of Corporate Communications.

Iceland has a countrywide volcanic eruption plan, and so does the airline – volcanoes are hardly uncommon in this country (click here for some impressive footage).

Each eruption is different, however, and thus affects the airline – and the country – in different ways. Iceland and Icelandair’s travel and communications infrastructure are designed to deal with volcanic eruptions and there is much that can be learnt from their experience.

This week, during the Grimsvötn incident, Icelandair says it experienced some delays but: “Most flights, with the exception of London Heathrow and Manchester, have been leaving Iceland and passengers are still being kept informed.”

Another interesting aspect is that of continuity and resilience in Iceland itself. The 2010 Eyjafjallajökull incident prompted a new understanding with the political leadership of Iceland and the tourism industry with regards to co-operation in a crisis.

Today, some areas of south-east Iceland are covered in ash and temporarily off-limits; however, life continues as normal throughout the rest of the country, according to Iceland’s tourist authority.

  • The full article Volcanic Disruption is published in CRJ 7:1, May 2011
  • In a future issue, CRJ will be looking at the campaign that was created to help avert further crisis – the collapse of the country’s important tourist industry – which involved harnessing the power of inhabitants, social media, conventional advertising, PR and the internet and music industries. 
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