Travel in Europe ground to a halt after the April 3 eruption of a volcano in Iceland sent an expansive, dense ash cloud into the air, causing officials to shut down airspace. Tens of thousands of passengers suffered delays for as long as two weeks as a result, and many quickly discovered that being grounded by the ash was just the start of the problem.
Rental cars, hotels, train tickets, and everything in between became precious commodities for stranded travelers, who waited anxiously for the airways to be deemed safe again for travel. Meanwhile, a major logistical problem was unfolding for airlines. When the skies opened up, the stranded passengers would need to be accommodated, as would passengers scheduled to fly in the days ahead. For the ones 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, and the media and airlines were telling you it was impossible? The solution: call a local aviation consultant. If you don’t have one, 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 needed to return from Italy to Houston, Texas. Their S.O.S. call found its way to me one late Saturday afternoon on April 17, two weeks after the eruption. The banker for these business executives conveyed a sense of urgency and frustration about 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.
While arranging charter flights is not something I specialize in, my Rolodex is full of companies that do, so I commenced frenzied speed dialing. Cognizant of the time-zone difference, I rang up my business partner in Geneva, at 11 p.m. on Saturday, his time. As the owner of a charter/management company, he operates a “for hire” fleet of long range, large cabin private jets, which is just what was needed for this trip. This one phone call led to a feasible plan being in place by 9 a.m. the following morning.
The bad news: the aircraft available through his charter company were either already out on trips or stuck in Geneva for the same reason the clients were stranded in Italy. The good news: he had access to a Falcon 7X that happened to be in Africa, outside of the area affected by the closed airspace. All we needed to do was find a mutually convenient staging area for the clients to rendezvous with the aircraft at an airport not currently affected by the closed airspace, and the rescue would be underway.
At this point, we were racing against the clock because the window of opportunity for departure from the chosen airport could close at any minute. The chances of airspace remaining open improved as one traveled south, so the clients decided to drive from their location in Northern Italy to Rome to meet the airplane on Monday morning. The crew sitting with the Falcon 7X would be able to deliver the aircraft to Rome, but since they were arriving from Africa, they would not be in a position to continue with the flight onward to the States. So another crew was dispatched by train from Geneva to Rome on Sunday morning to be in a position to launch the flight at 9 a.m. on Monday.
The jet had empty seats available for other passengers, so as Sunday dawned in Europe, the passenger manifest began to expand, and arrangements were made to stop in Spain to pick up other stranded co-workers, bringing the total number of travelers to eight. Schedules were set, security and customs clearances prepared, and the weather was watched closely—all in less than 12 hours from the time I answered the first call. Since my job was pretty much over, 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 from the comfort of my living room.
This example shows that discretion, flexibility, and customized solutions are true hallmarks of business aviation. Should you ever find yourself stranded, whether because of a volcano or other disaster, private aviation can provide a way to get you where you need to go—pronto.