That’s because a volcano in Iceland is emitting tonnes of ash and limiting air traffic into and around Northern Europe to nearly nothing.
Probably, you, like me, have been reading or hearing about these events via whatever media you normally consume. Copy editors and announcers alike have been tormented for nearly a week now trying to spell and/or pronounce “Eyjafjallajökull”, the name of the volcano that has been puffing ash clouds into the air above Europe and grounding airplanes around the world.
The only people who have not been following this gigantic news story?
The men and women who man the phone lines at call centers of airline companies.
The people at United Airlines – which I was supposed to fly with from Monterey to Denver, on to Newark and finally to Amsterdam – seemed particularly uninformed.
Sure, I received several e-mails urging me to change my flight plans prior to my scheduled departure from Monterey. That was nice; I have never received this kind of prior notification from an airline company (then again, they’ve never had to deal with a disruption like this).
But when I called to find out about my options, I found a very uninformed group of employees. That, or I found a very good group of actors playing the part of uninformed employees.
While I could see at its website that Schiphol airport, for example, was closed at the time of my flight from Monterey, the United people couldn’t. News media like the BBC were reporting that the situation with the ash cloud was worsening. The United people had no idea what was going on. It appeared highly likely that I wouldn’t be able to go, but United’s website still said my flight was a “go”.
At the same moment, Google News was brimming with stories about airport closures.
Scotland opened its airspace, then it closed again.
The front page of Schiphol airport’s website warned travelers that the airport was not sure when it would re-open. Check with your airlines, Schiphol’s website suggested.
United employees apparently aren’t allowed to use the Internet at work. I inquired about my options and told the United employee I reached after a half hour delay (nothing compared to the 160-minute delay I faced just three hours prior to my scheduled departure from Monterey) I figured she knew more than I did (being on the inside of the situation) and hoped she could talk to me about my options. She chuckled.
“We’re usually told last,” she said.
Meanwhile, I was searching for information about the situation by using a number of media tools. I think my instinct to reach for these tools is reflective of the evolution and sophistication of Web 2.0 tools for enabling people to connect with each other to find out “what’s happening on the ground.”
But it’s also indicative that the “best” legacy media brands – like BBC, for example, – are still important. Their reporters are the ones with more access to the kinds of “official sources” that are making decisions about things like keeping airspace open.
I probably refreshed BBC.co.uk more times yesterday than I have on any other day. They do a great job of time-stamping their stories, which was a major help.
Other key resources I used to track the news events that impacted my flight plans:
- EUfeeds.eu: The web development team at the EJC created this tool, which aggregates and nicely displays news headlines from the newspapers of each European companies. I was able to quickly find out what Dutch media were reporting about the situation at Schiphol (the airport I was trying to reach).
-Google Translate: I can usually get the gist of articles in Dutch, but I’m not experienced enough with the language to get the details. But when I used my basic skills to find an article that seemed useful, I could pop it into Google Translate and learn more.
- Skype: Being able to instantly reach my colleagues in Europe, in particularly the Belgian web projects manager I work with, was great.
- E-mail: I could use CC to quickly inform groups of colleagues about the changes in my plans. And it’s great that Gmail automatically groups e-mails as “conversations” so that I could respond to individuals on the e-mail thread who replied to me individually.
- Smart phones: I myself don’t use one, but my colleagues do. My Belgian web projects manager was able to advise me throughout his Saturday night with his iPhone (that, or he added the “Sent from my iPhone” tag to his e-mails to convince me that he was having a night on the town rather than geeking out in front of his computer ; ).
- Twitter: I used Twitter in several ways. The people I follow linked to useful news articles and blog posts from other travelers (including a link to the Flickr pool of ash cloud photos) I searched “ash” to find out general information about the situation. Later, as it emerged, I followed the #ashtag. I also searched “Newark airport” to see what was going on there. I found several Tweets about the dismal situation at the international departures area at Newark.
I also amusedly followed Jeff Jarvis, a New York journalism professor who is well-known for his active blog Buzz Machine and book “What Would Google Do,” as he attempted to leave the re:publica conference in Berlin and catch a flight back to New York. Jarvis used Twitter and his conversation skills to hitch a ride to Munich and get on a standby flight after his Berlin flight was canceled. He Tweeted throughout the saga. Reading about his struggle to get a flight convinced me that I’d be an idiot to go to the airport.
- Radio – It’s a vintage medium, but important. When I had to run some errands Friday, I kept the car radio tuned to BBC World News. I heard interviews with scientists and engineers who talked about why planes couldn’t fly through the ash cloud.
So, did the United Airlines staff use any of these resources? No.
In my opinion, that’s a huge problem for the United corporation.
I truly believe United could have better helped me figure out my travel options – and craft better policies to help their customers – if its employees were all able to have Hootsuite or Tweetdeck open in front of them.
As for United’s totally bogus “we-won’t-give-you-your-money-back-until-your-flight-from-Newark-to-Amsterdam-is-actually-canceled-nevermind-that-you’d-have-to-plan-on-being-stuck-in-Newark-for-a-solid-week-in-order-to-do-that-because-we-wait-until-the-last-moment-to-formally-cancel-a-flight-but-you-can-have-a-United-voucher-now” policy… That’s a different and entirely more annoyed post!