I spent a good part of the weekend surfing web sites to find more information about how the volcano eruption in Iceland is decimating travel in Europe; partly because it is a fascinating event, but mostly because my wife is in Canada and wants to get home.
I booked her tickets using points on KLM.com, so that has been the first place I go for most information, which has been pretty good. The information page is kept reasonably up to date, with clear information on the options available to stranded passengers. The web site didn’t work to change reservations, but in an event of this size I would expect some problems. I was very impressed with KLM’s outreach via social media, primarily Twitter and a Facebook page. There was a fairly constant stream of updates with links to the latest information, and answers to individual questions. KLM used these channels to publicize their pressure on regulatory authorities to open up European air space after conducting several test flights without incident.
Air France was another story. Her flights are operated by Air France. Their web site with official info was rarely updated and had little information about how to rebook or what the terms and conditions for changes or refunds (some information was added on Sunday). The Twitter feed was utterly silent. The most recent post from the company on its Facebook page was from February. It was obvious that Air France did not really want to use these social media channels during this crisis.
Even though Air France and KLM are two brands within the same company, they took radically different approaches to using social media during this unprecedented crisis in the European travel industry. While KLM embraced it, Air France ignored it. The results were clearly visible in comments on their respective Facebook walls. KLM’s were generally favourable, with lots of people thanking them for their efforts. Certainly, some complained and the worst of them were deleted, but the comment stream was not overly sanitized. The Air France page mostly contained astonishment from fans that the company was doing so little to communicate with or help customers.
The chaos created by the volcanic ash cloud presented unique difficulties for travelers and airlines alike. Huge events like this also present unique opportunities. I’m sure that the companies that grasp them will enjoy benefits long after the crisis has passed. While getting stranded is never fun, the goodwill created by KLM through Twitter and Facebook will persist. I suspect that for the Air France customers who went to social media channels, it is mostly the irritation that will remain.