Icelandair and the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption in 2010


On April 14, 2010 a volcano in the south of Iceland called Eyjafjallajökull started erupting clouds of black ash. The whole world soon woke up to the consequences, as airspace was closed down all over Europe, affecting flights throughout the world. For five days it was the world’s biggest media story. All eyes were on the images of the powerful bursts of fire and ash coming out of the crater and on the geographical maps showing the distribution of the ash cloud. With air traffic coming to a standstill, millions of passengers were stranded all over the world.

For Icelandair, this was a great threat. On the very first day, as the scale of the situation became known, Icelandair activated its emergency response system. The strategic decision was made to keep operating the network for as long as possible, and to use all available tools and tactics to get the message across that Icelandair was open for business.

With triple daily crisis meetings at the company's HQ the flexibility of all was tested as defense was turned to offence. In order to get passenger closer to their destinations special rescue flights were organized to the very few airports open, such as Glasgow in Scotland and to Trondheim in Norway, Then as European air space was opening up Icelandair's home hub airport in Keflavik closed down, and the whole hub operation was moved to Glasgow airport along with 200 staff to run the temporary operations for 10 days. Up to 36 flights per day and 4-6 thousand passengers of all nationalities were carried during this 10 day period with shuttle flights to Akureyri airport in north Iceland and busses running 24/7 to Reykjavik.

With over 150 schedule changes and tens of thousands of passengers influenced during a three week period the importance of communication was pivotal. Over 50 press releases were issued in several languages during the period, 250 online web updates on 19 sites in 15 languages. Over 200 updates on twitter and facebook, 200% increase in the number of answered telephone calls and text messages sent to passengers. Regular daily contact was kept with key tour operators and travel agents. Icelandair managed to get the message across that it was doing everything possible to help its customers through this situation and get people to their destinations. Only 20% of passengers needed to cancel their trips during the period and compensation requests have been minimal.

But  the volcanic eruption also had the potential to drastically change the perception of Iceland as a tourist destination. It could be considered dangerous, unsafe, complicated, - a stay away place. In the world media dramatic scenes from this small area of Iceland were mixed with chaotic queues in major airports. The question was how this catastrophic event that created an image of a closed and uninviting country would affect Icelandair with a home airport just 100 kilometres from the volcano itself. In the short term, all operations faced the threat of shutdown and abandonment by customers, with the consequential loss of important revenues. In the long term, the image of Iceland as a tourist destination might be irreparably harmed. So the threat concerned not only all the tourist industry but the whole economy of this small country.

Cancellations of Icelandair flights and booking at hotels, hostels and other tourist services in Iceland from the global market occurred more or less overnight. Tourist arrivals decreased by 22% in April. According to attitude surveys in Iceland’s main markets, interest in Iceland as a tourist destination also declined. Incentive trips were moved or cancelled, and congresses and conventions saw an immediate drop in delegate numbers. Unless tackled, this trend would have cut tourist numbers by a projected 100 000 in 2010 alone, a hefty figure for a nation of 320 000 people. Immediate action was required.

A few days into the eruption, on April 19, Icelandair accordingly approached the Icelandic government with the idea of joining forces to launch an immediate communication and marketing campaign to revitalize bookings and avoid a possible disaster in the summer high season. Involving the Icelandic government, the City of Reykjavik and all the leading players in the Icelandic tourism industry, this collaboration was quickly established and the country’s largest-ever campaign was launched in May with a 4.5 EUR budget – just six weeks after the eruption started. The main message was that Iceland is up and running, more interesting and welcoming than ever. The Inspired by Iceland drive rested on a belief in a strong, coherent, innovative and integrated campaign based on an conventional ads , social media and PR.
This was an extraordinary event and the first time ever a unified and rapid communication response to an unprecedented situation by the tourist industry and the public side had been accomplished.

The objective was to decrease the negative effects of the volcanic eruptions on the tourism industry and to maintain the previous season´s high levels of visits. The target markets were in Europe and North America. It was intended to enhance Iceland’s image as a tourist destination by taking advantage of the media attention it had gained internationally through the volcanic eruption.
The objective of saving the tourism summer high season was reached, with figures for travelers coming to Iceland equaling the number for 2009.  Longer term results also show that people are now more likely to visit Iceland in the future and are more positive towards Iceland as a travel destination.