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20 March 2020 | Blog

How the lessons of the Icelandic ash cloud can help airlines bounce back from coronavirus

Black swan events may be unprecedented and entirely unpredictable by nature, but history tells us they are also inevitable.

From the Gulf War to the financial crisis of 2008, 9/11 and Brexit, major incidents that throw entire industries into chaos are often just around the corner.

As airlines across the world navigate their way through the coronavirus crisis, we take a look back at the last black swan event to hit the aviation industry: the Icelandic ash cloud of 2010.

Following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in March 2010 and fears that the resulting ash cloud could damage aircraft engines, the airspace of most European countries was closed for approximately two weeks. Millions of passengers were left stranded, not only in Europe but across the world. And at the peak of the disruption, airlines were losing more than £130 million each day.

Here are some key lessons that we learnt from that period, and our advice on how airlines around the world can apply these to the crisis the industry finds itself in now with the outbreak of the coronavirus.

1) Keep communicating

Back in 2010, the move towards automated passenger communications was still in its infancy. This meant millions of passengers were left stressed and angry having travelled to airports, called airline contact centres and waited in queues due to receiving no information or advice. Sending proactive notifications allows you to avoid these scenarios entirely, thus significantly reducing the impact on your operational teams and maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction.

2) Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know

Passengers do understand the scale of events like the ash cloud and the coronavirus. They don’t expect you to have all the answers – at least not immediately. So sending a message just to let customers know you’re aware of an issue and are doing what you can to fix it will help you to maintain a positive reputation in their eyes. Your passengers will appreciate you telling them to stay at home/at the hotel/by the pool and that you’ll be in touch when they need to take action. Bear in mind though, if you’re keeping in touch with a sunbather, email is not going to be appropriate. Consider the different channels you need to be using to make sure all of your passengers remain informed and empowered, no matter their circumstances.

3) Make refunds quick and easy

One of the common themes of the months following the ash cloud saga was of angry customers complaining they were still waiting for refunds or compensation. We worked with several airlines during this time to create new sites through which refunds could be processed. Today, it’s essential that you automate this process to minimise the human input required and ensure negative sentiment does not build among your customers as they wait for compensation.

The 15below platform made a huge difference to many major European airlines in dealing with the disruption. We worked with major European airlines including Ryanair, Norwegian, Wizz and TUI to complete projects such as:

  • Creating new sites that allowed passengers to acknowledge receipt of cancellation emails.
  • Implementing real-time SMS notifications so airlines could share ongoing updates with customers.
  • Helping airlines to implement new refund processes so they could quickly and easily issue refunds to passengers without requiring expensive contact centre and administrative resources.
  • Setting up new microsites to allow for processing of refunds where existing websites were unable to support this functionality. The site we built for Ryanair 10 years ago means the airline has been able to handle millions of refunds associated with the outbreak of the coronavirus as if it were ‘business as usual’.

The ash cloud provided us with a golden opportunity to put our platform through its most stringent test to date. We’re now faced with the same challenge as we work with airlines to support them through the coronavirus crisis. Once again, it is delivering in exactly the way it was designed to do, despite millions more notifications being sent through it every month.

Following the ash cloud disruption, we received some incredible feedback, including:

“In one weekend, Ryanair sent out almost 1.5 million messages. We’ve been able to contact all one million customers affected by this unprecedented disruption. The sheer numbers involved would have made this kind of targeted communication impossible before 15below.”

Caroline Green
Customer Services Director, Ryanair

And the great feedback hasn't changed 10 years later, as we recently received these words of praise from British Airways: 

"From all of us at BA, firstly let me thank you and the wider 15below team for the continuing support during these extraordinary times.

"We recognise that we and every other carrier in your extended family is communicating with customers like never before, and we couldn't do it without you.

"So thanks for the update and continuing support. Please pass on our heartfelt thanks to the rest of the 15below family."

Michael O'Hagan
Commercial Operations Manager, British Airways

Find out how you could have the 15below platform up and running in just 72 hours to support your airline through the coronavirus crisis.