Pain in the Ash

Were you among many whose travel ground to a halt due to the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokul volcano in Iceland on April 13, 2010, after a 177-year slumber ?  Tens of thousands of passengers suffered delays as long as two weeks due to the shutdown of European airspace that was caused by an expansive, dense volcanic ash cloud.  Grounded by ash was just the start of the problem, as some travelers came to discover.

In this unprecedented halt to commercial airline traffic, rental cars to hotels and everything in between became a precious commodity.  A major logistical transportation problem was unfolding for the airlines: how to move passengers stuck by the shutdown and yet accommodate the scheduled passengers on the day they could start flying again?  For the passengers left stranded, when and how they were going to get home became an open-ended question as they discovered that rebooking was not going to be an easy undertaking.What were you to do if you positively HAD to be somewhere else and the media and airlines were telling you it’s impossible?  (What traveler has not heard those familiar “it’s impossible” words spoken in an imperial tone to them at one point or another in their worldly travels?  You know what I am talking about!)  The answer is to call a local  aviation consultant!  And if you don’t have an aviation consultant, contact  your private banker and plead, “ HELP!  I’m stuck and I can’t get out of here!”

Such was the case for a group of businessmen who absolutely, positively needed to return from Italy, to Houston, Texas, within a certain timeframe.  The “SOS” call   found its way to me on late Saturday afternoon, April 17, while I was doing an admittedly “girlie thing” –  like having my nails done.  The banker for these business executives conveyed the sense of urgency and the frustration in not being able to find a solution for her high net worth clients. She wondered if I, as someone who works in the business aviation sector, could come up with one.

Mind you that although arranging charter flights is not what I specialize in, my Rolodex is full of companies that do and so frenzied speed-dialing (with help from my manicurist) commenced.   Cognizant of the time zone difference (or not since this is business aviation and we answer calls no matter what the hour), I rang up my business partner in Geneva at what was 11 PM.on Saturday, April 17, there.   As the owner of a charter/management company, he operates “for hire” a fleet of long range, large cabin private jets which is just what was needed for this type of trip.   One phone call lead to having a feasible plan in place by 9 AM the next day, Geneva time.

As we know, all plans have upsides and downsides, good news and bad news so to speak.   The bad news: the aircraft available through this particular charter company  were either already out on other trips or they were stuck in Geneva for the same reason that the prospective clients were in Italy.  The good news: he had access to a Falcon 7X that  happened to be out of the affected area.  All we needed to do was find a mutually convenient staging area from which to commence the trip and the makings of a rescue were underway.

We were racing against the clock at this point because we had to coordinate a trip from other than the airplane’s home base and the window of opportunity at the chosen airport could close at any moment.  Chances of the airspace remaining open improved the further south one went.  That led the passengers to decide to drive from northern Italy to Rome where the airplane would meet them on Monday morning, April 19.  The crew sitting with the Falcon 7X would deliver the airplane there, but since they were arriving from Africa, they would not be in a position to continue with the flight onward to the States.  Another crew was dispatched by train from Geneva to Rome on Sunday morning so as to be in position to launch the flight at  9 AM on Monday,  local time.

As Sunday dawned in Europe, the passenger manifest began to expand.  Given that empty seats were available for other travelers, arrangements were made to make a stop in Spain to pick up other stranded co-workers, bringing the total to eight.  Schedules were set, security and customs clearances prepared, and the weather watched closely — all in less than twelve hours from the time the first call was made.  Since the job was more or less over for me, I resorted to monitoring the weather and flight status over Europe and transmitting this data to the travelers.  I had my own little Mission Control going on from the comfort of my living room!  And yes, of course, I reminded everyone that arranging catering should be on the “must do” list.   Even though I knew that the impeccable Swiss service would not forget this detail, I wanted the passengers to know they could order whatever they wanted.  You know, when in Rome……

Ultimately, the Texas bound passengers were able to regroup and find a commercial flight home from Europe.  However, the level of service offered by the owner of the charter company and the rapid response in coming up with a solution to their transportation dilemma won over these executives and assured opportunities for future business for the charter company owner.  Flexibility and customized solutions are true hallmarks of business aviation.

So the next time a volcano eruption interferes with your travel plans and your airline ticket become as valuable as the last lottery ticket you bought, remember that private aviation offers an alternative to get you where you need to go.  Pronto!