A Finland Swede in Bavaria

Friday, 23 April 2010

An English language timeline of my volcanic adventure

From Sunday 11.4.2010 to Thursday 22.4.2010, I used my Twitter account @kajarno to send

  • 26 Swedish tweets

  • 41 German tweets

  • 69 English tweets

(not counting direct replies) of which a clear majority (but not all) were of a volcanic nature.

Most Swedish readers can follow German and English too, and most German readers also follow English. Hence the large number of English tweets and the larger number of German tweets.

Here's a subset of the English tweets. The dates and times are local (California 9 h different from Munich; Chicago 7 h different).

Thursday 15.4.2010

  • 13:12 Kaj Arnö wonders whether LH459 will leave at all MUC-SFO tonight 21:00, and if so, which route #iceland #volcao #ash

  • 20:18 Damn, flight was cancelled. #lh #iceland #volcano SFO-MUC LH459

  • 21:06 Even though it isn't a #Lufthansa owned #volcano they provided me with a free hotel. Danke! :) #Island

Friday 16.4.2010

  • 07:56 John Cleese took the taxi from Oslo to Brussels. I doubt taxi is an option from San Francisco to Munich. Stranded in Oslo, Cleese takes taxi to Brussels

  • 14:56 Whoever put the soap in the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, don't add it to Katla #ashtag - http://is.gd/bw7fz great funny 2min video

Saturday 17.4.2010

  • 7:34 If many MySQLers meet, disruption happens. 2008: Sun buys MySQL. 2009: ORCL buys Sun. 2010: Eyjafjall erupts #ashtag #mysqlconf (via JWiss)

  • 10:51 Kaj Arnö wonders if a competent lawyer could send a cease and desist letter to @Eyjafjall #ashtag

  • 11:15 Under Icelandic influence, Europe has turned to the most xenophobic continent of them all #ashtag @Eyjafjall

  • 15:42 No LH459 SFO-MUC tonight either. Later meeting with fellow stranded MySQLers for dinner in Redwood Shores. #ashtag #mysqlconf

Sunday 18.4.2010

  • 10:48 Sorry Twitter followers and FB friends for erupting so many msgs but being stuck on the wrong continent is no fun #ashtag #getmehome

  • 11:38 Kaj Arnö just extended his involuntary stay at Sofitel until Wed, like his fellow LH passengers (good hotel, wrong continent) #ashtag #getmehome #SFO

  • 11:41 Kaj Arnö sees that today's LH459 is cancelled, too -- tomorrow (for which I was rescheduled) is still on schedule, though #getmehome #ashtag #SFO

  • 13:25 Lava all, nerve all? RT @Eyjafjalla: To my 1125 followers: I lava you all! #ashtag

  • 14:40 Progress rpt: Now @Lufthansa_DE follows me and @Eyjafjalla laughs at my jokes. If only I could connect the two. #ashtag #getmehome

Monday 19.4.2010

  • 00:42 Sun's travel agency found me a flight Monday morning 9:40-15:45 SFO-ORD (=Chicago) +16:40-07:40+1 ORD-MAD. If it flies. I'll try Madrid!

  • 00:44 Issues: Little time in Chicago. And perhaps ORD-MAD will be cancelled. But worth a try!

  • 06:25 *If* I get home to Europe over Madrid, here are my trains: 16-18:38 M-Barcelona 19:38-5:45 B-Geneve 6:14-8:56 G-Zürich 9:16-13:28 Z-München

  • 17:33 Boarded! Madrid, here we come! And there I will stay, my wife predicted. Trains and buses told to be full until Monday. #ashtag #getmehome

  • 17:57 Iberia Airbus A340/600 is moving, due East! Bueno, señorita stewardess, I'll turn off the phone. To be continued. #ashtag

Tuesday 20.4.201

  • 08:18 Kaj Arnö greets Europe and thinks about his fellow European #mysqlconf attendees still captured in the US #ashtag

  • 12:32 There's an ocean of difference between waiting in Madrid and waiting in the US. #relief #ashtag

  • 12:53 Done: SFO-ORD 2956 km. Done: ORD-MAD 6763 km. Todo: MAD-MUC 1481 km. That's a mere 13% or < 1/7 #ashtag http://is.gd/bAuXU

  • 19:24 Kaj Arnö is on his 8th day of handluggage only business travel and still finds a spare pair of unused socks #happy #frugal #greedy #ashtag

Wednesday 21.4.2010

  • 08:27 Kaj Arnö will make an attempt at the MAD airport to go to MUC #ashtag 8:55-11:20 IB3534 http://bit.ly/b9Wv4a

  • 09:22 Sign of air travel normalisation: frustration over MAD "security" process temporarily won over joy of returning home #ashtag

  • 09:37 A jetful of passengers are still queuing for boarding. Hope or desperation? 8:55 IB3534 Madrid-München #ashtag

  • 11:43 Landed in Munich! Although I am now a released Eyjafjalla hostage, most #mysqlconf Europeans still aren't. #hashtag

Thursday 22.4.2010

  • 08:46 Fun science! RT @stewartsmith: Best giggle for today: #boobquake - also, a world of awesome.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Twelve conclusions by a released volcano hostage

Five days of uncertainty, trapped far away from home by an Icelandic volcano, provide plenty of time to think. Here is my attempt at drawing conclusions the day after returning home: partly on a personal level, partly on a general human level, partly on a societal level.

To recap what has happened: Ten minutes before the intended boarding time of LH459 from San Francisco home to Munich, I got an SMS about the flight being cancelled. This was Thursday 15.4.2010 at 20:20. Thereafter I lived in uncertainty in airport hotels, most of the time 40 km south of San Francisco, to finally arrive home five days later than plan on Wednesday 21.4.2010 at 13:00..

Personal conclusion

Conclusion 1: Uncertainty and losing freedom are hard to cope with. In retrospect, I never was in any real trouble. No physical suffering, no bodily harm, hardly any material loss. Still, the experience was amongst the strongest ones in my life. If that's the case, what do I really have to complain about? Losing freedom for an indefinite period of time. Unmet expectations.

Conclusion 2: Europe is my home continent. Emotionally, it was terrible to be stuck on the wrong continent, 9474 km away from home (SFO to MUC). Last time Eyjafjalla erupted (1821-23), it took one and a half years, and knowing this instilled a feeling of potentially being a hostage for countless weeks, away from family and friends. How could anyone know for how long intercontinental air traffic would remain closed? Sure, the relief when returning home was enormous, but the real euphoria happened when I saw Europe again in Madrid. I was rescued! Sure, I was still 1481 km from home, but that distance I can make by train, bus, car or even bike. Fellow sufferers amongst MySQLers have shared my feeling that although it's fantastic to be home, the real pressure was off already upon "merely" returning to Europe.

Conclusion 3: Humour is a strong weapon. From the start, we who got stuck kept a good mood through joking. Some of the humour was black enough not to merit being captured in print. "Send cash not ash" was the first successful joke on the web, but the self-made jokes provided more solace. Most jokes were somehow language dependent and I shared them with the two biggest language groups amongst the stranded colleagues and friends: the Swedish speakers and the German speakers. Language jokes seldom translate but the illustration on the right is 1:1 transferrable between Swedish and German. The word for "surprised" in both languages is literally translatable to "overrashed", so leaving out one "r" means we were "overashed". One particularly fun web link is to the three-minute Icelandic terrorist video, where Icelanders keen on keeping their Icesave money threaten to put soap into Eyjafjalla's big sister Katla, so we won't have a summer for years (a Katla eruption in 1783 caused hunger and poverty across Europe, believed by some to have been a key trigger for the French revolution six years later).

Conclusion 4: Language creates closeness and strengthens a sense of kinship. This one may be impossible for monolinguals to understand, though. Basically, sharing raw information about my situation would have been technically doable in English, making Twitter and Facebook texts understandable for (nearly) all. Yet, the whole point with the social media communication for me was to shorten the emotional distance and increase the mental well-being of those at home, of fellow sufferers and of myself. For this to happen, there needs to be a en emotional closeness to the language itself. I need to communicate in the same language as I would use in person. Hence, I used mostly Swedish and quite a bit of German, with English only as a third choice. It wouldn't have felt right to use English only.

General conclusions

Conclusion 5: Humans are social creatures, and social media give true consolation in times of hardship. Facebook and Twitter became lifelines for us volcano hostages. I got more Facebook events than ever. On my way from Chicago to Madrid I had 51 events, and from Madrid to Munich 48 events. It felt great for me to know that someone cared. And to judge from the content of the comments, people really did care: "I hardly get time to work - having to follow the exciting serial story about 'will-Kaj-get-home-or-not-and-when-and-where-and-how". Reply: "That's how I feel, too! Is this Reality Entertainment? (Sorry Kaj - perhaps not from your perspective...)" whereas a third fellow hostage pointed out that "this is a bad reality show, as no matter how hard I try, nobody votes me home...".

Conclusion 6: Individual characteristics, good and bad, are underlined by the exceptional situation. Stoic peace could be seen amongst those who stay calm under normal circumstances. Systematic work and concentration amongst those not easily distracted. That I found consolation in humour, in writing and communicating with others was no coincidence. Sadly, I regressed into an old bad habit of being too keen on following superficial web news, instead of just carrying on as if nothing had erupted.

Conclusion 7: The possibility and ability to make the best of a bad situation varies according to attitude, character and luck. Myself, I had set my mind to returning home quickly. I have visited to California quite often and (picky as I am) have problems in the US to find food I enjoy, particularly for breakfast. I dislike driving cars; lazy as I am, I prefer public transport. I was in no mood to spend time somehow getting the 40 km to the city centre of San Francisco, which I have visited many times. For others stuck, the situation was quite the opposite, and they were happy that San Francisco was the place fate had chosen, if they had to get stuck. For me, the good part was that I had my running gear, books and notes, as well as car-borne colleagues with whom I could have a run and share dinner.

Conclusion 8: Wishful thinking is more common than panic reactions. "How may hours will you be delayed?" was a typical question in the beginning. As hours grew to days due to closed airspace, the questions became "Have you got closer to home?" or "Do you know when you'll be home?", although nobody had a clue when air traffic would be allowed again.

Societal conclusions

Conclusion 9: Flying, especially for tourists, will become less frequent. Both rational and irrational reasons speak for travelling less. Personally, I will evaluate the need for travel outside Europe more stringently than before. And I believe many will even avoid intra-European travel.

Conclusion 10: The value of insurance will be questioned. The idea with insurance is to minimise exposure to risk if something unexpected happens. Financial Times Deutschland points out that insurers exclude many unexpected events from the list of what you're protected against. Consequently, customers may see less value in being insured in the first place.

Conclusion 11: Social media grow ever more in importance. Although Lufthansa were bad at communicating during the Eyjafjalla eruption, it turns out KLM already has done what I have nagged for Lufthansa to start doing. KLM actively communicates in Twitter, has a good Facebook page (I became the 38704th one to like it), and an impressive YouTube video with their CEO. And the sense of belonging created amongst private users during times of crisis won't fade off as quickly as the ash cloud.

Conclusion 12: Risk assessments may become more rational. BBC's question whether it's more dangerous to drive a car than flying through ash clouds stresses the unethical aspect in the populist politician statement of "security above all", since we irrational human beings readily accept highly dangerous activities such as high speed limits for cars, smoking, alcohol and unhealthy food, all of which cost considerably more lives than air traffic. And even airport "security" control (de facto a form of state sanctioned systematic mobbing) will over time get easier to question, as we travelers use our newly gained vulcanic experiences and contemplations to become less gullible.

Communication Lessons from a Volcano

Today, I'm amongst the lucky ashmob hostages returning back home. And five days later than planned, spent at airport hotels in San Francisco and Madrid, gave me time to think and jot down a few recommendations for service companies to improve their communication policies.

Note: I've already stressed it isn't Lufthansa's volcano, nor their politicians, and that I am in general a happy Lufthansa customer. I'm also happy that American Express Travel Bureau got me home as quickly as they did. Nonetheless, I claim the communication policies of both Lufthansa and AmEx can be substantially improved. That said, though, they're probably not any worse off than most other companies, as a majority seems to be quite lousy at efficient customer interaction.

My suggested lessons boil down to common sense: Respect the time of your customers. Set expectations properly. Underpromise, overdeliver. Communicate with personalised information. During a crisis, be more communicative than normally, not less. None of these suggestions are specific to the travel industry nor to volcanoes, but the Eyjafjalla eruption provided ample opportunity to illustrate how companies execute badly on these simple, common-sense guidelines.

So, here are my suggestions:

  • First: Communicate at all. From the standpoint of a stranded passenger abroad, Lufthansa was near-silent. One SMS about the cancellation of the flight was all proactive communication I got during five days as an Eyjafjalla hostage.
    My suggestion: Speak up, don't leave me in the dark. Send me SMS:es! Send me email! You send plenty enough of promotional email at "peace time" when I'm not so interested in it. Now I was craving for news, any news, and got none.

  • Second: Bad news is better than no news. No news means uncertainty. No news means I'm worried, and that you put the burden of finding out answers on me.
    My suggestion: If things look bad, tell me. Bad news don't disappear by themselves, you can't defuse them through silence. Instead, tell me in advance.

  • Third: Use asynchronous channels that scale for both you and me. Pushing out bureaucratic semi-information on your own web site may seem to offload you work, but it doesn't answer my questions and causes me to approach you using methods that don't scale for you. I want to know with what likelihood my flight leaves, and if you give me this information only in person, it requires me to wait. And remember, I'm stranded far away from home and have other things to do, such as stand in another queue, slowly crawl through airport "security", check in to my hotel, talk to worried family members at home, calm down my own customers or just too tired to listening to your overly cheerful recorded messages.
    My suggestion: Send me personalised information by email and by SMS. This scales, as I don't have to wait (and pay the phone bill for listening to your information-free recorded messages) while you reply to me. And my questions should be easy enough for you to anticipate: Do you think my flight will leave as planned? What costs will you cover? Your communication should also be simplified, not made more complex, by the fact that I can live with understandable uncertainty ("LH459 will probably be cancelled tomorrow. We will decide by 14:00 PST, but may give you further information earlier.")

  • Fourth: Make your recorded messages accurate. If you make your communication scale, fewer of us need to use the phone hotline in the first place. But if we do, I can tell you it's frustrating to hear once a minute in a joyful, happy tone that "You will be served by the next available person" for all of 45 minutes as I did on the Senator hotline, when my simple need was for a credible LH judgement of whether LH459 would leave Monday 19.4.2010. I had to give up and catch my alternate escape route. It now turns out I would have been able to take LH459 for a direct Business Class flight home, and instead took an alternate route over the Atlantic in Economy with another airline, for a total cost that including the extra hotel night in Madrid cost much more than the ticket I left unused.
    Suggestion: Indicate my position in the queue. Hearing "There are 15 persons still to be served before you" being replaced by "There are 14 persons ..." about five minutes into the call will make me give up in time, understanding it makes no sense to queue on the phone. That means less frustration for me, not more. And don't interrupt the music for an identical, nagging text too frequently -- I do have other things to do while waiting on phone, than getting my train of thought interrupted. Worse still, AmEx: Don't say "The next available person will serve you shortly, we ask for your patience" on the recorded message, when what you de facto mean is "This phone number is closed now, as it operates only outside German business hours. Please used +49-xxxx instead." In fact, I missed an urgent and important call by an AmEx customer representative, just after midnight Californian time, while in queue for catching that person over a phone number that wasn't operational at that point.

  • Fifth: Increase communication capacity during a crisis. Airlines should have plenty of idle pilots and stewardesses during volcano eruptions.
    Suggestion: Let the cabin crew communicate. Give them a crash course. Let them talk to customers at extra check in desks, over email, phone, SMS, Twitter, everywhere. You'll calm down passengers quickly, serve them better, and have your cabin crew learn a thing or two about your customers. It seems a Danish airline called  Cimber Sterling was smart enough to do so.

  • Sixth: Make it easy for the customer to contact you. Filling out web forms is difficult to impossible if you've only got a mobile device for input. Having to navigate through complicated low-usability web pages is a nightmare under stress.
    Suggestion: Allow scalable input such as SMS and email. Promote SMS input numbers and email addresses clearly and prominently. Fixing spam must be a solvable issue for you; putting the burden on the customer is simply inacceptable. Also, make it dead easy for me to identify which phone number to use. And, dear AmEx, it's very frustrating to try to call your German +49-xxx phone number from abroad and get an American phone error message saying the number is invalid.

  • Seventh: Don't be afraid of social media. Facebook and Twitter aren't mere channels for press releases. @Lufthansa_DE did start subscribing to me after a while into the Eyjafjalla crisis, but replied only with one private note despite me addressing @Lufthansa_DE with several comments, most of which were quite pro-LH.
    Suggestion: Use Facebook and Twitter for semi-informal communication. Reply to people who mention your @handle (or even just your company name) in tweets. Don't expect to please the always-complaining, unsatisfiable 5%. Do expect to calm down the rest of us; we constitute 95%. Expect us to talk good about you if you communicate well. We know it's not your volcano.

I do value the warm touch of individual human interaction face-to-face at a check-in counter or voice-based on a phone. But those are scarce and expensive resources for you, and involve long queues for me (as measured both in metres and in minutes), representing huge frustration. So please, do spend the time until Katla erupts by improving your communication processes!

Sunday, 18 April 2010

There IS a way to fly, Lufthansa!

Redwood Shores 18.4.2010

Dear Lufthansa,

My Day Three of being stranded on the wrong continent is starting. I want home!

As I wrote to you earlier, it's not your volcano. And now, I have to add, it's not your politicians nor your scientists either. So you have my full support in questioning the sensibility of a complete flight ban.

We may witness a Security Theatre ("security  countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of improved security while doing little or nothing to actually improve security") in a more dramatic implementation than ever before in aviation history.

Hence, I have two requests for you, especially related to long-distance flights:

  1. Convince the scientists that you should be allowed to start flying at all.

  2. Convince the politicians that you should be allowed to choose routing more flexibly.

The prevalent conclusion of the volcanic eruption seems to be "faced with the forces of nature, passengers have to be flexible and expect delays". I can tell you, we do.

The missing conclusion is "faced with the forces of nature, airlines, politicians and regulatory bodies have to be flexible when working off the backlog". I can tell you, that flexibility doesn't seem to be happening.

The equation is complicated enough without the added constraints of processes tuned to business-as-usual. Lufthansa has an unchanged amount of airplanes and airplane seats. The backlog of stranded passengers is piling up. How does anyone expect the situation to normalise if available airplanes are not being used to fly stranded passengers closer to home, relieving the constraints of the existing flight slots and landing permits handed out on mere commercial grounds tuned for "peace time"?

Moreover, last time the thing erupted 1821-23, it took one and a half years. This eruption may not be a matter of days, either. I may be flexible, but I'm not happy to wait on a geological time scale.

So let me tell you how far my flexibility extends. Usually, flying SFO to MUC with LH459 meets my needs perfectly as I live in MUC and I couldn't imagine any better way of flying than in your Business Class (sure, "flattery can take you anywhere", but I honestly cannot think of much that would make the SFO-MUC flight more endurable and more enjoyable than it already is in LH459, starting 21:00 and arriving 17:15+1). But now, I just want home. I can downgrade. I can travel at a different time of day. I can travel a different route. In fact, I'm happy to just get home to my own dear ash-infested continent, in time to attend my daughter's confirmation next Sunday in Munich. I am willing to take the train from anywhere in continental Europe to Munich. My only constraint is that I don't have a valid Russian visa, so I cannot travel through Russia. Lisbon is fine, so is Madrid, Rome, Barcelona, Toulouse, anything North, East, South, West (but not really Reykjavik). And the fellow stranded passengers I've talked to share my, how shall I put it, certain degree of flexibility.

So start flying! You've got airplanes, you've got passengers, and there are ash-free parts of the skies. Use them! Don't expect to fix issues caused by extreme situations using normal means.

Kaj Arnö

Lufthansa Senator member
EU citizen (of Finland)
German resident (in Munich)