The Impact of the Volcanic Ash Cloud on Air Passengers

The Impact of the Volcanic Ash Cloud on Air Passengers


J Guiver, University of Central Lancashire, UK


This paper reports the findings from an on-line survey of passengers affected by the suspension of flights due to the volcanic ash cloud.


It over two years since the ash cloud from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull disrupted air travel to, from and within Europe. This paper reports the findings from an on-line survey of passengers affected by the suspension of flights. The detailed questionnaire completed by over 500 would-be passengers produced a rich mixture of statistical and qualitative data.

Many respondents encountered problems in getting accurate and timely information about their flights in the fluid situation. The survey asked about who was contacted and how. The data show that different types of passengers and people at different stages of their journey used different means of communication. Crashing websites and overwhelmed switchboards combined with inconsistent or delayed information caused uncertainty and anxiety. Many respondents spent hours and fortunes trying to make contact with their airlines and other agencies, often ending frustrated and angry at the lack of concern or response.

Friends and family were easiest to contact and most likely to be helpful. However, the agents most likely to find alternative travel arrangements were the airlines. Consulates, embassies and insurers were least likely to be contactable or helpful. Tourists without lap-tops had to queue to use hotel computers, while other travellers in different time zones found contact with agencies in Europe difficult.

For most people travelling within Europe there were alternative modes available, although the French railway workers’ strike compounded the confusion. Social networks were used to arrange alternative travel and accommodation. While social networking websites helped organise car shares or find out what was available. Several respondents were surprised to discover how depleted the European rail and ferry network have become after years of competition from low-cost airlines.

Most inter-continental travellers resigned themselves to an indefinite stay at their destination, often accompanied by a sense of guilt about the work and domestic tasks their absence had imposed on colleagues, friends and family. Some discovered ingenious ways of continuing with their activities, while others found the quest for information about flights too time-consuming. Several respondents wrote about the pain of missing important social occasions such as weddings, funerals, special birthdays or being with a new-born baby and the difficulty of re-arranging commitments such as interviews, exams, health or legal appointments.

The incident illustrates how reliability of travel arrangements is assumed and when this is disrupted there are consequences which impact on both the traveller and their work and social networks. It also demonstrates the reliance on flying to maintain different networks such as dispersed families, academic and professional activities. Yet, most people said they would not have travelled or would have changed their destination had flying not been possible for some time before their planned trip.

The paper discusses the relevance of the findings to future travel disruptions. It also questions whether the findings offer insights into the consequences of reduction in aviation to mitigate climate change or in response to rising fuel shortages and prices.


Association for European Transport