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From Pampers to Pizza: How Travel Industry Has Taken on Volcano

A Day at JFK Reveals the Ways Airlines, Restaurants and Others Have Responded to Stranded Passengers

By Published on . 1

JAMAICA, New York (AdAge.com) -- In a neat row, in bright colors, the monitors at John F. Kennedy International Airport's Terminal Four beam the two little words stranded travelers have been longing to see for days: on time.

After a week in which an estimated 102,000 flights were canceled in and out of Europe due to the Icelandic volcano eruption -- costing airlines, travel agencies and the like tens to potentially hundreds of millions of dollars -- nearly every airline was back on schedule today as airports lifted travel restrictions. Even so, an estimated 250 people were still stuck at JFK and living in a veritable "Cot City" on the fourth floor of Terminal Four, waiting to be re-booked or fly stand-by, meaning it was another day for marketers to try to engender some goodwill for their respective brands by offering aid to frustrated flyers.

For companies in the airline, hotel and food-service industries, among others, the natural disaster has become something of a chance to shine -- or not. "This isn't about business anymore; this is about helping your fellow man," said John Barry, retail operations manager for Saveria, USA, based at the terminal. Saveria owns and operates 13 different stores on JFK's mall-like third floor, which is filled with eateries, shops, bookstores and more. Saveria donated hundreds of bottles of water and soda on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights, the three days in which the canceled flights peaked. It also offered discounts on clothing at its stores.

'Like a village'
"I hate to make the over-used analogy that it's like Tom Hanks in [the film] 'The Terminal,' But it is. It's actually like a village," Mr. Barry said. "We see the same people and even know some of their names. At this point, we see people who are out of money and whose spirit is broken. These customers are really temporary residents of New York now and we're trying to help the best we can."

SSP America, the food-service provider at Terminal Four, provided a free buffet dinner on Monday night for all stranded passengers that included braised beef, chicken wings, a pasta dish, salad, pierogies and vegetables. Tuesday night, the company delivered 25 free pizzas to the fourth floor of the terminal.

People were appreciative, to be sure, but they're still angry. And most of the invective is being directed at the airlines. "Nobody can give us a straight answer," said one weary traveler, Daniel, who declined to give his last name but said he has been waiting more than two days to get to Amsterdam via Delta Air Lines. Another traveler, Willem, added, "I know it's not [the airlines'] fault but there has to be more than just a cot and a [food] voucher."

Yet in a walk-through at JFK, it was clear that the frontline representatives for their brands -- ticket agents and customer service representatives -- were quite sympathetic and helpful. "I know, my babies, I know," a woman from Delta told a young couple who appeared on the verge of tears. "Don't worry, we will get you home."

Which airlines went the extra mile?
There has been a marked difference in how the airlines have reacted to the crisis. Most domestic carriers handed out food vouchers and complimentary phone cards, which was more than they were required to do. But others went further. At Terminal Seven at JFK, British Airways' concourse was virtually empty because the airline had paid for hotel accommodations for all its passengers, and had handed out food vouchers.

"You won't be seeing cots in any British Airways terminal," airline spokesman John Lampl said. Mr. Lampl said it's BA's policy to respond as quickly as possible. "If there's a situation in Seattle, for instance, and I'm six or seven hours from getting there, I'll have our crisis PR team [Weber-Shandwick] there in a minute," he said, "because I know that CNN will be there in two minutes."

Airline consultant Bob Mann, CEO of Long Island-based R.W. Mann & Co., said it was an extraordinary gesture by British Airways. "Most of the carriers that operate under the auspices of the European Union are bound by a passenger accommodation regulation that is quite extreme," Mr. Mann said. "So this was extremely generous, especially in view of this being an act of God, rather than their planes are broken. U.S.-based carriers have a condition of contract in which essentially giving away vouchers is really going beyond what they're required to do. I think that pays off in the minds of passengers and creates great word-of-mouth."

Port Authority lends a hand
Mr. Mann also said the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates JFK and Newark Liberty International Airport, has coped very well throughout the crisis.

In conjunction with the airlines and the Red Cross, the Port Authority made cots and blankets available, had tables that on Wednesday were lined with water bottles, bread, peanut butter and jelly, fruit and, for those traveling with infants, boxes and boxes of Pampers and baby formula. The Port Authority also made arrangements for people to take showers, to help those who needed prescriptions refilled and to aid those for whom the delay might have meant overstaying their visa.

And, to its credit, the hotel industry in the U.S. for the most part did not try to take advantage of the situation with price gouging. A group of almost 40 hotels in New York banded together to offer stranded passengers a 15% discount on room rates, although the Associated Press reported that a Hong Kong hotel raised its rate from 250 euros to 800 within the same day.

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