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Business continuity plans must address massive air travel shutdown

Before the dust settles from an erupting volcano in Iceland, business continuity managers need to take a close look at their business continuity plans, starting with their supply chain.

When the ash cloud from Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano shut down air travel across Europe and beyond, the business continuity plans of stranded British comedian John Cleese included hiring a Mercedes cab and forking over the roughly $5,000 fare to get him where he needed to go. "How do you get God to laugh? Tell him your plans," he quipped.

For many a business continuity manager, however, the punch line was probably a good deal less existential. Losses for the airlines alone surpassed $1 billion. That figure does not include the toll on organizations crippled by their inability to ship or receive materials by air -- or the effect on business from the stranding of employees.

"What we really had here was asymmetrical reliance on one or two modes of transportation, oceangoing vehicles and air travel," said business continuity specialist Donald Byrne, managing director of consulting firm North River Solutions Inc. "The trains weren't disrupted, and the bus lines and the automobiles were not disrupted. But you can't use those across the Atlantic Ocean."

Now that the dust has settled, experts like Byrne are urging business continuity managers -- including those at businesses not affected by the ash cloud -- to use the event as a teachable moment while the chaos it caused is still relatively fresh in people's minds.

For starters, the volcanic eruption should serve as a sober reminder that even rare events with limited physical destructiveness can cause widespread chaos, said Roberta Witty, a business continuity analyst at Gartner Inc. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull resulted in the largest-ever interruption of global air travel. Nor may that event be so rare. Historical data shows that when Eyjafjallajökull erupts, the neighboring, much larger Katla volcano follows suit.

The event pointed up other deficiencies in business continuity plans besides a lack of air travel contingency plans, however. The ash cloud did not disrupt communication channels, Witty said, and that should have allowed businesses to respond constructively to employees, although many did not. In a report published April 23, Witty and her Gartner colleagues offered advice on ways to mitigate the impact of the next large-scale transportation disruption. Here are four takeaways, with comments from other business continuity experts:

Workforce continuity: Managing and communicating with the workforce during a crisis is the first job of a business continuity manager. In the air travel disruption caused by the erupting Icelandic volcano, the Gartner report highlighted two IT systems that can enhance business continuity plans:

  1. A centralized online travel service system that gives business continuity planners a quick inventory of all employees in transit. However, even the most creative and adaptable travel firms are quickly overwhelmed with requests in major travel disruptions, Witty pointed out. Therefore, it is incumbent on an organization's HR department to reach out to "each and every worker" to help with alternative plans, such as hiring buses to ferry stranded employees.
  2. A business process management (BPM) system that can be used to identify the critical work projects affected by the absent workforce, the status of the projects and which tasks can be transferred to other employees. Such information as the "chain of command, workforce succession and backup personnel needed to continue business during any unexpected absence" could be housed in the BPM repository, which includes organizational models and roles, the Gartner report advised.

The volcanic eruption underscores the need for succession planning, said Paul Kirvan, a business continuity expert based in New Jersey. "If the CEO of a company is stranded in an airport, it is conceivable that he or she would not be able to do that much," he said. Therefore, be sure to have a plan that accounts for fulfilling the duties of those who are stranded, he added.

Supply chain and customer service: The hallmark of lean supply chains is just-in-time deliveries of inventory. When those goods are transported by air, the impact on the supply chain -- from flight delays and cancellations -- is obviously huge. Some automobile manufacturers in Europe shut down after only five days, because of volcanic dust-related supply chain disruptions, according to the Gartner report. The volcanic disruption also marked the first time that FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. said they could not honor overnight delivery service-level agreements for Europe.

This event serves to remind organizations that supply chain risk-management contracts need to be reviewed for elements that could cause service disruptions: For example, does the contract rely on on-site vendor resources who are now unable to access your facility because of travel disruptions? Can the work be shifted to another geographic location?

Keeping customers informed about delays is critical; so is offering to help if your organization is not affected by the crisis. Gartner also recommends that business continuity managers consider ways their organizations can turn lemons into lemonade -- literally -- by offering, for example, to donate perishable goods, such as fruit, to charities or local processors.

Managers should use the loss data from the air travel shutdown to drive home the need for business continuity planning, said North River Solutions' Byrne. "Certainly the supply chain issue is a huge issue, and is one of the best ways to come up with financial justification for why you should engage in preparedness and readiness planning," he said.

Remote access, telepresence: One of the foremost questions for today's business continuity managers should be how much of their organization's business can be managed remotely. Stranded business travelers likely will have the tools to connect to work through wireless devices and plug-in laptops. Staff stranded while on vacation will have fewer resources, especially those who consider it a badge of honor to unplug while they're on holiday. The Iceland volcanic eruption points out the need for key executives to take their hardware with them on vacation, the Gartner report said. At minimum, "traveling executives should be equipped with at least some remote work capability … based on smartphones and wireless access into the corporate VPN," the report advised. The corporate network must be able to handle such communications, and handle them securely.

While telepresence theoretically can keep stranded travelers in business -- or preclude the need for them to travel in the first place -- the technology isn't readily available at enough locations. "If you have stranded staff, then the chances of them getting to a telepresence room you can use are slim," the Gartner report stated.

H1N1 planning to the rescue: In fact, what really should have come in handy in a crisis like the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull is the business continuity and communications planning that many organizations did for the H1N1 influenza crisis, Kirvan said. "This situation is kind of analogous to a pandemic, because in a pandemic you really aren't concerned about losing technology or buildings, but loss of people," he said. "So, in a situation like this one, take another look at your pandemic plan, pull out the appropriate pieces and fire those up."

At the end of the day, the hundreds of thousands of threats, even unusual ones like volcanic eruptions, will affect a business in probably eight to 10 ways that need to be addressed by business continuity plans, North River Solutions' Byrne said.

"[Threats] disrupt your service, they disrupt your transportation, they deny you access to your facilities, they cause a lack of access to your staff, and so on," Bryne said. "That's really what you need to protect yourself against, those eight to 10 categories, whether it is from a flock of birds flying into the engine of your plane or a volcano exploding."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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