Just over a year after the last crisis, those Icelandic volcanoes are at it again, and a plume of ash is threatening flights to and from airports in the UK. 

Hopefully, the disruption to flights won’t be as widespread as last year, but concerned holiday makers and business travellers will still be looking to online channels for up to date information. 

I’ve been looking at the websites and social media channels for some of the airlines with disrupted services… 

What should airlines be doing to keep people informed online? 

People are looking for up to date information, and airlines are faced with the problem of adapting to a rapidly changing situation. At the moment, the ash cloud is mainly affecting Scotland, but it’s predicted to move south later today, though changing wind patterns mean that accurate predictions are difficult to make. 

Airlines have the opportunity to keep customers informed by using their websites and social media channels to provide accurate and up to date information. 

This can take pressure off call centres, saving customers the pain of waiting in call queues and, if flights are cancelled or delayed, customers need not sit in airport terminals for hours on end. Information has to be up to date though, or customers will simply turn to offline channels. 

Information on airline websites

At the very least, I would expect to see prominent notices on websites, informing customers of the current situation. 

As reported by the BBC earlier today, BA is one of the airlines which has announced cancellations of flights between London and Scotland today, yet its homepage offers no information on this. 

(UPDATE: As pointed out by @jharrower on Twitter, there is some information about the ash cloud under the ‘travel news’ section on the right. I missed this initially, though that does suggest that it should be more prominent.)

BA homepage

KLM provides a great example, with clear messaging on its homepage that links to detailed info about cancelled flights, refunds, rebookings etc: 

KLM homepage ash cloud

The notice on Ryanair’s homepage could perhaps be more prominent, but it’s still there, linking to a page which provides information on its cancelled flights, as well as a dig at the ’misguided invention by the UK Met Office and the CAA’.

How are airlines using social media? 

In the aftermath of the volcanic ash crisis last year, I spoke to Icelandair’s eMarketing manager Kjartan Sverrisson about how the airline used social media, and especially Twitter, to keep customers informed.

According to Kjarten, while Facebook can be used for this sort of information, he found Twitter to be a more appropriate channel for providing updates. 

This is because the nature of such travel disruption and a rapidly changing situation calls for frequent updates, which could flood users’ newsfeeds on Facebook, something which is less of a problem on Twitter. 

The airline is still providing updates and responding to queries on Facebook though. It may be less suitable than Twitter, but if that’s where your customers are…

Naturally, Icelandair is using Twitter again this year, along with frequent updates to its website. Note that the airline asks customers to DM details so they can follow up individual queries.

A number of other affected airlines are using Twitter for ash cloud updates. While the British Airways homepage didn’t provide much information, it is providing regular updates and answering customer queries via Twitter.

So is KLM, which has also been updating regularly on Twitter, and responding to customer questions. It also has an account which publishes automated flight status updates: 

KLM Twitter

Lessons learned from last year’s crisis

So far, the Twitter and social media accounts I’ve mentioned here are doing these three things well: 

Keep it simple

Messages on the KLM and Icelandair Twitter accounts are simple and clear, linking to further information where appropriate.

While individual queries about a particular flight can perhaps be answered via Twitter, more detailed information is better presented on the main website. 

Present a human face

People don’t want to see seemingly automated information being pumped out regularly via social media, anymore than they want to listen to recorded updates when they phone customer services. 

If people can see that there is someone there, answering direct questions and empathising with customers, then the information provided is more likely to be seen as up to date and reliable. 

Monitor and respond regularly

While the Twitter account may not need as much attention normally, in the case of a crisis like this, it will need constant monitoring and effective management to ensure that questions are answered and people are provided with regular updates. 

Last year, Icelandair used CoTweet to keep a track of the situation, ensure that questions were answered and avoid any duplication. This or similar management tools can help in such a crisis.