Middle East travel industry tackles ash crisis


How did the Middle East travel industry cope with what’s been called the “worst travel disruption the world has ever seen”?

Just when the travel industry was busily anticipating a bright and busy summer ahead it was stopped dead in its tracks last month when the eruption from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland brought Europe’s most important airports and air traffic to a standstill for six days.

The volcanic ash cloud caused thousands of flight cancellations and more than 7 million passengers to be stranded worldwide.

One travel agent described the situation as the “worst travel disruption the world has ever seen”. As well as having to cancel and re-book holidays for those unable to travel, agents and operators were suddenly faced with the nightmare situation of hundreds of passengers stuck in Europe with no way of getting home and no idea when they might be able to get on a flight.

Airlink International UAE had 100 passengers in Europe when the volcano erupted. Candida Fitzsimmons, supervisor, Leisure Travel said the agency worked around the clock to book stranded passengers into hotel accomodation and onto the first available flight. “This is the worst travel disruption the world has ever seen. The biggest challenge for everyone in the industry is trying to accommodate stranded passengers in their current destination, rebook flights or find alternate routes,” she said.

Mohamed Al Rais, deputy managing director, Al Rais Travel said his staff were in “direct contact with all passengers to rebook another flight.” He said staff had been busy fielding calls from customers, “cancelling flights, extending hotels, or postponing trips.” Many customers also requested refunds on holidays booked. “The biggest challenges have been getting hotel refunds at the last minute as some of the hotel are strict and will not accept it even though the customer insists.”

For tour operators the situation was equally chaotic. Emirates Holidays had to oull in extra staff to help tackle the crisis. Hans Haensel, divisional senior vice president, Destination & Leisure Management, Emirates Holidays said: “We had a few hundred clients from Emirates Holidays in Europe – fortunately it was only about 20 percent of our business at the time as the majority of our business over the Easter period was to Asia and the Indian Ocean.”

“The team at Emirates Holidays has been in contact with every single client – helping them to either extend accommodation or find cheaper accommodation – that has been the biggest challenge. To be in contact with hundreds of clients individually is a massive job.”

He added: “We had to redirect our staff – we have a pool of staff who are trained to deal with emergencies, but we had to get a few more people on board.”

And with Dubai being a long-haul destination from Europe, there was simply no other option but to wait for flights to become available said Haensel. “If you live in Europe you could try to go on trains, buses, or rent a car but if you are on a long-haul holiday that makes it more difficult so that’s the story with our clients. You really have no other alternative because of the distance involved.” Haensel estimated it would take up to four days to clear the backlog of passengers once the flight ban was lifted.

Pulling together in a crisis

Anwar Abu Monassar from DMC The Vision said one positive to come out the chaos was that the industry did pull together in the crisis. The Vision had a group of 250 people from Europe who were stuck in Dubai for five extra days. Monassar said his hotel partners “behaved very well – assisting us, giving us complimentary rooms, and helping us to accommodate them.” The Vision also offered their DMC services for free to assist the stranded group. “Some flights were not cancelled till the very last minute and no one knew what was happening. But we arranged trips to Abu Dhabi, to Oman, and we created a situation where people were able to enjoy it in the end.”

And while agents and operators pulled out all the stops to help their stranded clients, those who booked independently and on the cheap are probably still the ones waiting desperately for a flight today.

Leo Fewtrell, general manager, Dubai Travel and Tour Agents Group said: “I think this situation perfectly illustrates the benefits of booking with a responsible agency who can be held accountable by a trade body such as DTTAG. This gives a level of comfort to customers that they are dealing with companies that take their responsibilities seriously.”

Agents agreed that the crisis had given them a chance to show their dedication to their stranded customers: “By booking with the travel agent, the passenger is eased out of coordinating directly with the airline or hotel, The travel agent takes care of it all,” said Fitzsimmons. “At times like this agents are expert and know when and how to contact the right people,” added Al Rais.

“Having booked through a Travel Agency means having somebody where one can be totally depending upon with confidence,” said Sunny.