Ash cloud crisis: airlines need to do better, says travel industry veteran

By danwarne, June 13 2011
Ash cloud crisis: airlines need to do better, says travel industry veteran

Airlines are doing a bad job of contacting passengers when major disruptions like the Chilean volcanic ash cloud hit, according to Johnny Thorsen, CEO of ConTgo.

ConTgo offers an SMS communication service for airlines and travel managers to contact passengers, so while the comments are aligned with ConTgo's view of the travel industry, Thorsen makes valid points.

"There is no excuse for the way airlines are behaving whenever another large 'unexpected' disruption occurs," he told Australian Business Traveller.

"With the third ash cloud-related airspace closure in just 14 months (twice in Europe and now once in Australia), it is becoming increasingly hard for airlines to explain why they are unable to initiate smart communication with the impacted travellers in a matter of minutes."

Thorsen criticises airlines for trying to contact all customers themselves rather than sharing information on delays with travel management companies (TMCs), who have systems in place to contact corporate travellers quickly.

Airlines sending politically motivated info?

Some airlines even send politically motivated information to travellers, Thorsen says, giving a real example of a recent flight from Melbourne:

"It simply does not make any sense that an airline sends out a blanket message to about 50% of the passengers on a fully booked flight from Melbourne to Singapore advising them that the flight is delayed by 30 minutes, when another message is sent via Twitter by a passenger in the airport, advising that the flight is cancelled or delayed by two hours."

"This example highlights a number of weaknesses with the current airline communication model, as the message sent to the 50% passengers might only reach 30% of the actual in-seat individuals, given that many corporate travel bookings are made with a pseudo email address or mobile phone number.

"For those who do receive it, the actual info they get is based on a politically-motivated desire by the airline to get people to remain at the gate in case things improve unexpectedly."

Twitter and Facebook aren't enough

According to Thorsen, airlines are currently unable to rapidly identify which passengers need to travel as soon as possible, or would be happy to defer their travel a few days, once the airport chaos has calmed down.

"It makes sense to introduce an intelligent screening of how important it is for a passenger to leave on the given day vs an alternative date in the future," he says.

"Travel management companies have systems in place to contact corporate travellers and find out whether they want to keep the seat, cancel the trip completely or rebook to a later day.

"Rather than the airline assuming that everybody still wants to travel, the TMC can help remove relevant passengers from the active booking list, and effectively help the airport and airline reduce the stress levels for stranded passengers.

"Furthermore, seats are freed up for use by other stranded passengers who can then get out faster, unlike last year's ash cloud closure in Europe where planes flew half-empty the first couple of days because bookings hadn't been properly cancelled for passengers who decided to abandon their trip.

"All of the above is possible today, but airlines are refusing to share operational information with the general travel technology industry, and are relying on ad-hoc updates on Twitter and Facebook pages."

Airlines risk becoming dinosaurs

Thorsen says that airlines need to adjust to the times.

"With so many airlines competing on services which has become increasingly commoditised, it would be interesting to see an airline starting to compete on the quality and flexibility of flight information.

"After all we are living in the most connected time in history, and even dinosaurs might survive if they adjust with times!"

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