herald

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Eoghan Corry: Volcano is continuing to cast a long, dark shadow over all of us

Welcome to our new life, life with an angry ash cloud as a neighbour.

We have learned yesterday how quickly it can come back to haunt our airspace, and, a fortnight after our big shutdown, how ill-prepared we are for it.

The Eyjafjallajokull is not going away and could be a feature of our entire summer.

For aviation and for tourism, this is 9/11 and foot and mouth problems rolled into one.

An ash cloud that wanders into our air space with any regularity, even one that returns once a fortnight, will be a very expensive visitor indeed.

Uncertainty is the enemy in travel. It will cost us sleep and stress in advance of our flight to the sun or to that important business meeting. It will cost the airlines money. It will cost our island tourist industry bookings.

Yesterday's statement by Aer Lingus said that the first ash cloud will cost it €20m from its second quarter earnings. The second ash shutdown (already dubbed ar ais arís) will have added another €2m to that bill. Ryanair's costs will be at least double that.

Airlines, and their passengers, are used to coping with strikes, shutdowns and bad weather. They brush themselves down, house and feed the passengers, and get airborne as quickly as possibly.

Vulnerable

In the internet age they are particularly vulnerable to any uncertainty that will affect forward bookings. They need advance bookings, not late ones where people wait and see whether there is a prospect of an ash cloud before they decide to click the credit card link.

Their entire revenues stream is under threat.

To make matters worse, over the past decade the airlines have been diverting people away from sales counters and telephone call centres to their websites.

The theory is that websites are cheap and are able to cope with all the problems that will arise. They have closed check- in counters and reduced staff but are not able to cope with the scale of the inquiries that descend on them at times like this, 8,500 calls an hour at one stage during the last closure.

The call centres were closed overnight. When they opened this morning, people phoning from abroad faced huge phone bills as they waited, listening to holding music.

Aer Lingus's website was down for some of the morning as it struggled to cope. Ryanair's website would not allow passengers to change bookings in certain circumstances: where you have checked in online you have to speak to the call centre to get anything done.

The airlines are no more prepared for this problem than they were a fortnight ago.

The world has got closer to us over the past decade, thanks to the advent of dozens of new air routes and low-cost airlines.

Under our ash cloud this morning it seems a distant place once more.

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