Stranded in Europe

Guest Post by Meghan Prichard, Peppercom UK

I doubt Jimmy Buffett would ever have predicted that his song “Volcano” would become so many people’s theme song over the last week, but many of us really didn’t know where we were “gonna go when the volcano blow.”

April 28 As I boarded the plane April 14th for my first journey out of the country since arriving in England four months ago, trouble was brewing on another island nation 1,000 miles away, erupting later that day into a crisis that continues to wreak havoc on travelers, consumers and businesses alike.

As both a traveler and a consumer affected by the alphabet soup volcano Eyjafjallajokull, I was surprised by the lack of communication offered by any of the organizations I expected would serve as the most salient sources of information—specifically, my flight company and my home country.

There were no resources on the website for the U.S. Embassy in Germany. There was advice on the U.S. Embassy website in the United Kingdom, but it was for Americans stranded in the United Kingdom. I had registered my trip abroad with the Department of State, but received no email updates or suggestions on how to get home.

Meanwhile, Ryanair canceled my flight, which I learned from a prominent link on the website. A day later, Ryanair informed me of the cancellation by email and text message. The airline also offered a free rebooking for the following day. When that flight was canceled, it appeared that Ryanair’s already tenuous communications skills were collapsing. No email, no text, just another ominous link on the homepage.

Ryanair is notorious for its poor customer service, even when not in times of crisis. Any customer helpline number I called promised to charge 60 pence per minute and would undoubtedly cost more than my original flight by the time I got through to someone. Yet any travel alternative promised to cost even more time and money.

With television coverage all in German and the exorbitant rates of international calls, I relied on the Internet for information, but both organizations’ websites failed to deliver. Both the U.S. government and Ryanair could have done a lot more to assist those of us stranded in other countries.

When checking in to the State Department website, for example, I could have been directed to a discussion board where people shared their experiences and mapped their locations, allowing us to rally together and get group rates on train and car travel. At the very least, I would have liked a list of trusted alternative transportation options.

Ryanair could have taken this opportunity to reopen the Twitter account it closed last year and communicate with stranded passengers. A lot of the confusion stemmed from not knowing if and when airspace would reopen. Ryanair could have shared information hourly about weather conditions and predictions regarding reopening.

Either entity would have been wise to produce a YouTube video addressing concerns about when conditions would change and how to deal with the situation if they didn’t. I think a lot of us were just seeking reassurance as much as we were seeking alternatives.

Of course, there’s only so much complaining one can do about being stuck in Munich. My flight was supposed to leave Monday, but I ultimately left the following Sunday—an extra six days I was able to afford only because I stayed with generous German relatives and made ample use of their kitchen.

In the meantime, I placated myself with chocolate and pastries, but also with the hope that all of these organizations will learn from their mistakes in this unexpected situation. The United States needs to provide options for its citizens regardless of their location and flight companies need to do more than charge customers for the airline’s mistake.

And learn from their mistakes they must, because there will be a next time. With icecaps in Iceland melting, another eruption is only a matter of time. If organizations develop better crisis communication strategies now, however, next time won’t be such a big pain in the ash.

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