Social media communication during the Eyjafjallajökull #ashcloud crisis in 2010

Written by: Margret Runarsdottir

How airlines used social media to communicate to stakeholders during the crisis that followed the volcanic eruption.  

In March 2010, Eyjafjallajökull, one of Iceland’s active volcanoes erupted, affecting millions of travellers around the world (Iata Economic Briefing, 2010). Volcanoes are not uncommon in Iceland, which lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, on two continental plates moving apart and causing regular volcanoes on the island (Iceland on the web, 1997). For the last 120 years there has been one volcanic eruption on average in Iceland, every third year. This was however, the first time that it had affect on air traffic, beyond Iceland national boarders, causing the biggest disruption in air traffic since 9/11 (Iata Economic Briefing, 2010).

The crisis 

The eruption started out as a so called lava eruption, causing little threat in the beginning and was referred to in the media as the perfect tourist volcano (, 2010). It was pretty easy to visit and enjoy the spectacular mother nature. But a new phase began on April 14th, with violent eruptions that blew huge amount of ash into the atmosphere, making it unsafe to fly. The next seven days, over 100.000 flights were cancelled reaching its highest on April 18th and 19th, when 30% of worldwide scheduled flights were cancelled (Iata Economic Briefing, 2010). During this week, 313 airports in Europe were closed, affecting 10.5 million passengers and the economic damage is believed to have been somewhere between 1.7 and 3.3 billion euros (Alexander, 2013).

The definition of crisis varies and the reputation of a brand or an organization is often the first concern of managers. There is however, a slight difference between crises and a disaster (Liu et al., 2015). While crises can often be something that the company had some knowledge about and could even have prevented, disaster is something that can’t be controlled. Natural disasters can be in the form of hurricanes, volcanos, earthquakes or a tsunami etc. Disasters can and often do cause crisis for organizations (Liu et al, 2015). But every disaster is unique and governments, businesses and organization face new challenges every time they occur (Yates & Paquette, 2011). The focus is then on how well prepared the company is and how they handle the situation they are facing (Liu et al., 2015). This is then mainly about how the organization communicates with their stakeholders, how they create information, how the information is shared and their intent to help solve the problem at hand (Liu et al., 2015).

Due to the mass commercial aviation that has been developing since the late 1960s our mobility has increased tremendously and along with that the tourist industry. Before, travelling with airplanes was a luxury only available to wealthier people, but is today available to almost everyone. Enormous amount of people travels on leisure or business every single day in developed countries (Hall, 2010). These facts make the affect of volcanic ass crisis much more serious and the extent of people affected by it (Hall, 2010). The airspace closure also affected transportation of goods that had economical and life threatening consequences (Alexander, 2013). As an example a big part of Kenyas economy is exporting flowers to Europe and over one million flowers had to be destroyed because of cancelled flights and lost transportation of bone marrow from America to Europe had life threatening consequences (Alexander, 2013).

Passengers were stranded in airports around the world and had no clue about how their problems would be solved. Many of them turned to social media (Alexander, 2013).


Social Media & Communication

The emergence of the internet and web 2.0, with user generated content, has changed how we communicate and brought organizations closer to their stakeholders with direct two-way communication (Fournier & Avery, 2011). This has given organizations the opportunity to listen to their customers and respond (Fournier & Avery, 2011). Today we are able to communicate wherever we are and over great distances, both with each other, and with companies (Hiltz, 2011, Yates & Paquette, 2011).  In the mid 2010 Facebook users were around 500 million, and that number had grown to 1,6 billion at the end of 2015 (Statista, 2016A). Twitter users were around 50 million in the mid of 2010 and that number had grown to 300 million at the end of 2015 (Statista, 2016B). According to Liu et al. (2015), disaster sociologists and communication researchers have found that social media and particularly Twitter are very effective in sharing information, quickly. Even though Twitters limited use of words affects the richness of the message, the message comes across rapidly and people can look to other media for more detailed information (Liu et al, 2015).

As can be imagined, airline call centres were overflowing with phone calls and confused travellers on April 15th. Most of them had not updated their websites with information about delays and cancellations, and the customers had no idea where to turn. The European air safety organization, EuroControl did a good job in using social media to manage the air traffic crisis (Nigam, 2010). EuroControl updated maps of the ash cloud on their webpage and shared information via social media using hashtags like #ashcloud, #euva and #ashtag.   This encouraged passengers to use social media to communicate with each other, and soon they started sharing tips and information between each other using hashtags (Nigam, 2010).

Stranded passengers needed new forms of transport to reach their destinations or a place to stay (Alexander, 2013) and the hashtag #getmehome was commonly used on social media. The #getmehome hashtag was used to offer shared transport, people a place to stay or just help out those who needed it (Nigam, 2010).  


How the airlines managed the crisis?

The airlines had to respond to this quick development and soon many of them started using #ashcloud along with their newest updates.  Using social media to communicate with passengers, with quick response time and helpful information made things easier for everyone (Nigam, 2010).

Baird and Parasnis (2011) discuss a perception gap between what businesses think consumers are after by following them on social media and what it is that they really want from interacting with them on social networks (Baird & Parasnis, 2011). While businesses often believe that the consumer wants to be a part of their community, the fact is, that they are most likely to interact on social media if it is to their own benefit. That is, to get information about discounts or coupons or to receive other information that is of value to them (Baird & Parasnis, 2011).

SAS was one of the airlines that took to social media during the Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud crisis, and made an effort to respond to every message, comment or wall post from customers, helping theme resolve their problems or keeping theme updated with the most recent developments. They directed customers to their Facebook page and responded to every request. Their Facebook likes went from 15.000 to 21.000 in just a few days (Nigam, 2010) showing us that useful information is something that the customer is after (Baird & Parasnis, 2011).

KLM also did a great job using social media during the ash cloud crisis (Nigam, 2010), and they describe on their own blog (Drimmelen, 2012) how the eruption changed their whole social media strategy. At that time, their use of social media was limited and managed by one person who responded to questions and shared information via smartphone. When air traffic was shut down do to the volcano causing serious crisis for all airlines the usual customer service outlets did not manage all the traffic. Passengers turned to social media and KLM responded. They provided information through Twitter and Facebook and did their best to respond to all inquiries.  What had been a one persons task quickly grew into a small team that used social media to communicate with customers and managed to rebook 50.000 passengers that were stranded because of the ash cloud, using Facebook and Twitter (Drimmelen, 2012).


Lufthansa also focused on social media during the volcanic crisis, but they were more in one-way communication providing and sharing useful information through Facebook and Twitter (Travel 2.0, 2010). Other airlines like Air France and British Airlines used social media as well, but not to the same extent as SAS and KLM (Travel 2.0, 2010).


What can we learn from the Eyjafjallajökull crisis? 

Since every disaster situation is unique, organizations face new challenges and concerns every time and can never be perfectly prepared (Yates & Paquette, 2011). In these situations, organizations need to adapt to the new environment and improvise to manage it (Yates & Paquette, 2011). As the number of people logging in to social networking sites, keeps growing, social media can play a key role when the public is informed about disasters and how it communicates (Liu et al., 2015).

It can be argued that most of the bigger airlines involved rose to the challenge during the volcanic ash cloud crisis, some better than others, and learned a lot in the process.


“From the ash cloud we learned that, as a company, we could tackle a crisis situation effectively using social media. We also learned that the public really appreciated this form of communication. Very simply, there was no way back – and that didn’t go unnoticed among our senior management. Not long thereafter our CEO, Peter Hartman, gave us the green light to set up a Social Media Hub and formalise our efforts.”

 (Drimmelen, 2012).


Drimmelen (2012) describes here above how the crisis they faced during the volcanic eruption in Iceland, changed the way they used social media. This can probably be applied to other airlines as well.

Soon there are six years since the eruption, and a lot has changed in the social media landscape. Natural disasters have happened as well as other disaster like terrorist attacks. Today Facebook has created a safety check button that they have activated during disasters like the Paris terror attack and earthquakes (Facebook Safety, 2015). It is likely that would something similar happen to air traffic today or in the close future, Facebook would probably come of with something similar to make it easier for people to connect. 

Interacting with all stakeholders, and encouraging people to interact with each other and share information is clearly very important for organizations and can be of huge benefit for everyone.





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