The Iceland Volcano: Potential Learning’s for Business Continuity? (Part I)

The next couple of posts I wrote based on some comments I heard regarding the Icelandic volcano incident.  Some of them you’ll agree with and some you’ll think…what the heck are they thinking?  I started to jot some points down based on some of the things I was hearing and reading – based on interviews and comments from journalists.  I don’t necessarily agree with everything but I thought to be fair I would capture everything I’d heard.  Of course, there is probably more things that can be added but these are the major things I heard or where the most often things I heard.  I’ve tried my best to interpret what some of the findings say so I hope I’ve captured the essence of what the various journalists were conveying….well, I hope so. 

            Since I’m heading off to the TIEMS conference in a couple of days, I thought I’d post both parts to this in one go – so enjoy. 


            On April 14, 2010, Mount Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced ay-yah-FYAH-lah-yer-kuhl) in Iceland erupted and created a huge dust cloud that impacted just about all of mainland Europe; cancelling soccer games, hurting crops and grounding thousands and thousands of flights and passengers.  It even affected passengers around the world that were nowhere near Iceland – or Europe for that matter.  It was stated that with the travel/flight restrictions in place, it was worse that than the 9/11 flight chaos (I’m not talking about human life here, which obviously was worse that any ensuing flight chaos).  Well, did anybody learn anything from the flight chaos after 9/11?  Now I’m not talking about the security measures and other precautions put in place, I’m talking about the preparedness level and the responses of governments, airport management, travel agencies and the airlines. 

            Like many of you, I tended to follow the myriad of reports from all over the globe about the people stranded and the various interpretations on what should / shouldn’t be done as a result of the volcano’s impact on air travel.  There were many different perspectives – even some that blamed the airlines for the mess the eruption caused.  By that, I mean a passenger blamed their airline “for” the eruption.  I’m not sure how any human person or corporation can be blamed for a natural disaster like volcano eruptions but it was still a perspective put out there. 

            As I watched some of the confusion run rampant – and the calmer perspectives – I started to make note of some of the various views and ideas that people had on the situation.  Many so-called experts spouted their views and provided their 2 seconds of fame as to what people, countries, airlines, travelers and others should or shouldn’t do.  Some were interesting and some were insightful.  I’ve captured many of them below.  I’m wondering if any of these could be lessons learned that might make their way into Business Continuity Plans (BCP) or other Business Continuity Management (BCM) program components.  If the volcano eruption caused more chaos to the airline industry than 9/11, maybe they might want to consider some of these ideas. 

            By the way, some of these aren’t just for the airports or airlines, some are considerations for corporations and their plans and programs.   I’ve done my best to explain what each is, and I can’t say I agreed with everything in full but there are quite some interesting ideas and viewpoints here. 

  1. Corporate/Business Travel (1) – Did we not learn anything from the H1N1 threat?  If memory serves correctly, there were all sorts of talk of utilizing web conferencing and teleconference calls to do business yet, I watched business leaders on TV state how disappointed they were that they couldn’t travel.  Now, I understand the disappointment about traveling – especially if you’ve built in some downtime as well – but shouldn’t these business leaders have been able to switch to contingency mode and do their business using their “Pandemic Strategy” (teleconferencing etc)?   Many corporations stated they’d utilize this approach if a pandemic occurred but were they wearing blinders?  You can use this approach for other disaster too and the travel restrictions imposed due to the dust cloud was one of them.   I think they had planned on one specific scenario (Pandemic) and haven’t – or didn’t – take into account other situations that can utilize some of the same contingencies.  
  2. Corporate/Business Travel (2) – There’s a second benefit here to utilizing the other approaches; cost savings.  If you revert to a contingency strategy, say teleconferencing as a result of a volcanic eruption (for example) then you can save travel and accommodation costs.  Utilizing this more and more will save corporations money.  Of course, I’m not stupid enough to know that this will be possible in every situation but I many, it is possible.  Why travel around the world just to shake hands and have a 1-hour chat that could have been done over a conference call?  It saves money and if you’re organization is environmentally conscious, it helps with the corporations carbon footprint.  It saves money that could be put back into training or purchasing that application – or hardware component – that is badly needed by the corporation but can’t be purchased because business leaders are traveling around the globe unnecessarily.    
  3. Suppliers / Partner / Vendors – This one harks back to the recent pandemic initiative, which for all intense purposes seems to have fallen completely out of the headlines over the last few months.  Still, this was one of the key focus points with regards to pandemic planning.  Those industries that wait upon supplies /imports /materials from others around the globe had to wait for their supplies to arrive.  I know a small English shop not far from my house that was told their shipment was going to be delayed by 2 weeks – and that’s just a small ‘mom and dad’ type of operation.  During the pandemic planning stuff, it was a big issue that corporations not put all their ‘eggs in one basket’ and seek other partnerships in the event their main suppliers were disrupted.  Well, it seems when the volcano went off with a bang, corporations were exposed for not having any plans in place.  Many that said they had a pandemic response plan in place and looked into alternate vendors / suppliers, didn’t actually have them.  They were still reliant upon the primary and didn’t switch to contingency mode and looked for someone else.  Of course, the timeframe may not have been enough to need the contingency supplier to be contacted but still, many corporations admitted they were still dependent upon their primary supplier and didn’t have an alternate identified.  Hmm, seems their pandemic plan wasn’t as good as they might have wanted to believe – or they simply lied about having a contingency in place. 
  4. Mail / Couriers – From personal experience, I was waiting for something to be delivered from Royal Mail (UK) but it was delayed because of the grounding of aircraft. Note: To clarify, this wasn’t work related a work required item and was a personal purchase not available in North America.  Still, I received a notice from the place of purchase that the item(s) would be delayed in being delivered.  It was a bit frustrating but I knew that this could happen anyway – regardless if a volcano was involved or not.  Yet, what if this was on a much grander scale and my company ( ) was waiting for something to arrive so that I could continue business.  Would it have impacted me to a greater degree or should I – as a corporation – ensure to investigate all options available to me to ensure that there isn’t another supplier closer to home (or an alternate supplier) that I can purchase from?  Should I do due diligence to make sure that I’m not impacted by such a situation?  If it were a pandemic, I’d have to ensure I had a backup plan if the delayed item dragged on into days, weeks months or even longer.  Is this even possible for all industries?  Is it even possible with some organizations if they have signed Service Level Agreements (SLA) with specific suppliers / vendors?  The supplier my be available and willing to deliver but the method of delivery isn’t available.  Therefore, instead of worrying about an alternate provider should I be focusing on alternate delivery methods instead or focus on this first before looking at another supplier?  Meaning, if I deal with Supplier “Y” in Estonia and they always deliver using Courier “X”, instead of finding another Supplier should we – as business partners – develop an alternate delivery source; such as using Courier “A”?  This way the vendor stays the same but the method by which I receive their product changes; instead of rail, I get it by truck; instead of plane, I get it by shipping. 
  5. Health Issues / Concerns – Especially for countries that were experiencing the dust cloud emitted by the Iceland volcano, there is the potential for future health hazards.  Just like those who were working through the wreckage of the World Trade Centre Towers, health issues were encountered by many people after the event.  The ash, which at times contained gases, dust and even minute bits of glass, must surely have an impact on the populations for which the cloud passed over.  Health institutions and corporate representatives should pay close attention to any potential change in employee availability due to health concerns.  It could be that the dust seriously harmed the lungs of individuals and now they are beginning to feel the effects of the dust and gases.  Sometimes these things don’t always make themselves apparent at the outset of a situation; sometimes they make themselves known weeks later as it works its way through a person’s system.  Just like pandemic preparedness plans or plans that deal with any level of employee availability (regardless of the trigger), corporations located in the affected areas may need to raise their vigilance in the event employees do become ill.  And this goes for management representatives too: they aren’t impervious to illnesses (unless there’s a magic management pill that protects those in management positions I’m unaware of).  These absences may result in higher health and benefit costs, so corporations should place themselves in a higher level of awareness just in case.  This does not mean panic – it means being aware and being proactive.
  6. Communication (1) – Hopefully, if you’re waiting on supplies to be delivered and they are going to be told about the situation from the supplier.   It would be nice to hear from them wouldn’t it?  Do corporations have this proactive approach contained in their business continuity plans or crisis communications plans?  Many don’t kick their plans unless there is a crisis specific to them, which they can manage (well, hopefully manage).  With the volcano disaster, it seemed many organizations were letting the media speak for them and pass along information on their behalf.  Were they afraid to speak up in front of cameras?  Since the disaster was of a natural origin (Just try to convince me it was anything else…), sometimes the best communication tool is the media because it is seeing and reporting on a much wider scale and scope than a single corporation could do.  Will all customers/clients be so understanding after a week?  Two weeks? Or more…  I think common sense would prevail and people would understand that no one can be blamed for a volcano erupting however, they do want to receive some sort of acknowledgement that they are going to be impacted by the situation – even it is indirectly impacting.  Corporations monitoring the situation should be proactively commenting on the situation and letting others know that they’re monitoring the situation.   Also, come right out and say that there may be impacts to deliveries and services; at least people will feel as though the corporation is thinking of them.  This will go a long way in customers / client relationships, as it’s proactive and not reactive, which is prominent for many corporations today. 
  7. Communications (2) – No all people could communicate with their loved ones when they were on the other side of the world.  This isn’t because lines were down or there was a strike, it was because they were in a place they couldn’t contact them.   I’ve seen people with their cell phones in their suitcase, which means they have no access to it when their luggage is still in a luggage bay someplace or in the belly of an airplane stuck on the tarmac.   Under these circumstances, airlines may want to consider some sort of courtesy phone that allows for stranded passengers to contact their loved ones, especially when they are on the other side of the world and need to let them know what has happened.  If you’re in China and the disaster occurred in Iceland (like it did) then you’re stranded in China and need to let those back home know what is going on.  It may not be possible for a cell phone to work where the stranded person is located (or it’s in their luggage) and their loved ones are wondering what’s going on with them?  Are they coming home?  Are they allowed to come home?  Having some sort of courtesy available – during disasters of course, not normal day-to-day operations – would help alleviate unnecessary stress as a result of the situation.  Not being able to contact loved ones causes stress to go up and guess who they are getting mad at; yup, the airline staff in the airport.  And these people aren’t to blame for the situation but are the targets of aggression when something occurs.  A simple courtesy phone for those stranded could help minimize stress and prevent hostilities from worsening an already tough situation. 

For more, see Part II. 


The new book by StoneRoad founder, A.Alex Fullick, MBCI, CBCP, CBRA, ITILv3, “Heads in the Sand: What Stops Corporations From Seeing Business Continuity as a Social Responsibility.”  Available at **

One thought on “The Iceland Volcano: Potential Learning’s for Business Continuity? (Part I)

  1. The greatest impact of this eruption was the death of the president of Poland. It may be too late, but my condolances for his family and country.

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