The Social Impact of Volcanic Ash

For this week’s edition of Travel Trends, a look at the social impact of the volcanic ash cloud that has crippled European air travel over the last week.

You know the story, volcano in Iceland…lots of ash…no flights…people upset…media coverage…more ash.

With thousands of travelers stuck in various airports and locations around the world, airlines are facing an immense customer service issue…how to communicate updated schedules, cancellations and refunds to thousands of displaced passengers.

Typically, the answer would be a call center, but alas that option has been quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of calls.

So if a passenger cannot get to the airline desk or call direct, where would a modern, digital traveler voice their concerns about an upcoming or canceled flight?

Exactly, social media outlets.

Let’s take a look at 4 major European carriers and their social response to the endless stream of ashtags.


What can we say, KLM clearly understands the impact and responsibility that comes with engaging in social media marketing / communication.


First, KLM is openly soliciting customer service issues via Facebook:

Impressive,  but not the only use for Facebook.

In addition to responding to every comment and wall post that comes in, KLM has also posted a 15 question FAQ (with time stamp!) right on the home / wall page, plus two new pages (‘Q & A’ and ‘Flight Info’) as well as a video message from the KLM CEO, Peter Hartman.


The impetuous for this Travel Trends post was a short tweet from KLM promoting the help via Twitter option.

@KLM: If you’re not able to contact us by phone for rebooking, …send us a request via twitter.

Again, a brilliant and well coordinated use of the social channels to communicate with stranded passengers.


As mentioned above, the KLM YouTube channel features a video message from CEO Peter Hartman on the current state of KLM flights.  Not to mention promotion of this video via Twitter and Facebook.

Add in two callouts on the KLM website about Twitter and re-booking via Twitter and Facebook and it becomes pretty clear that KLM is effectively using social media to communicate with their passengers.


The German carrier Lufthansa is also using the social space to address the delays caused by the ash cloud.


Primarily one-way updates with little conversation, Lufthansa is keeping the page current with the latest info and tips on how to re-book travel.  Helpful, but in comparison to the KLM page, the Lufthansa offering looks relatively ‘standard.’


Useful information and some conversation, but a grand total of 13 tweets in 24 hours leaves the impression that some questions are going unanswered.  Perhaps most updates are being handled via DM, but we think a few more tweets would help with the public perception of communication from the airline.

Not active.

Overall, helpful, but not outstanding from Lufthansa.  The social links on the site homepage help, but do not make up for the misses on Facebook on YouTube.

British Airways

Oh BA, let down your oh-so British guard and start talking with consumers via social.


The most recent message on the BA Facebook page…July 3, 2009…says that they do not communicate via Facebook.  Useless.


A few updates each day, with a flurry on Wednesday, address flight schedules, updates and re-booking options.  Like Lufthansa a limited amount of actual conversation.


Active and available, but alas, no info about the impact of the ash, flight delays, updates, etc.

The verdict, a couple of Tweets but not much else.  Again, kudos for having that Twitter link on your (site) homepage, but the appearance is simply a marketing reaction to a trend rather than a real customer service tool.

Air France

Ah, the best for last.  And by best we mean worst, and Air France certainly wins that award.


Latest message, Sunday at 2:44pm:

This is not the Air France official page.

Yes, well, we know that.  But it is a communication outlet for Air France.  Using Facebook as a social marketing / communication tool is fine during normal operations, but you have to be committed to it and resist the temptation to ignore thousands of your customers simply because it is not ‘official.’

I think one of your customers said it best…on your Facebook page no less…

Je suis d’accord avec Michèle et c’est incroyable de préciser que cette page Facebook n’est pas la page officielle ! Peu importe c’est un moyen de communication comme un autre pour la marque Air France, le consommateur ne fait pas la différence.

Translated for our North American readers:

…it is incredible to say this Facebook page is not the official Air France page!  The means of communication does not matter…the consumer does not see a difference.

Well said.


A grand total of 7…count ‘em!…7 updates since the start of the ash cloud.

Shocker, Air France does not have a YouTube page.

The part that both confuses and frustrates me is that Air France currently has a huge ‘Follow us on Twitter’ banner on their site homepage.  A banner that is actually larger (in size) than the banner about the ash cloud impact on flights.

Seriously, why would I follow you on Twitter?  So you can not update me?

If you are stranded (due to the ash cloud) with an Air France flight do yourself a favor, DM @KLM via Twitter and get the customer service you deserve.

Now, let’s give some of these airlines the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps they were simply not prepared to staff the amount of social communication generated or maybe the legal team thinks that a message via Twitter exposes the organization to litigation.

We should also note that some of these social sites were the North American version(s)…in the case of BA, the U.K. Twitter channel is quite active.

However, the message here is clear.  Interaction, engagement and marketing in social media cannot be turned off or paused due to a natural disaster,  labor strike or policy change.  The start of a social media marketing campaign is the start of an open relationship with your consumer.

All of these airlines have a call center and a disaster communication plan, so why have 2 of them almost completely ignored the social part of that plan and forced consumers to into a undesirable communication medium?

The dismissal of social communication by BA and Air France is simply poor customer service.

And in the confusing, yet wonderful digital age that we now live in, customer service is not limited to a call center… customer service occurs anywhere that communication happens with the consumer.

KLM understands that shift in communication, Air France does not.

Comment? @travel2dot0 or email.