Chaos in Rome

Rome Travel Blog

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Like five million other people, we have been stranded due to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. Our flight was due to leave Saturday morning, but the airports were in chaos and Belgian airspace closed down. We decided not to risk a repeat performance, so rather than rebook a flight we tried for the train station - more chaos and then some!

Despite record demand and a line taking up the entire hall, Train Italia didn't put on any extra staff, and of course they would not allow internet booking. Despite getting in line at opening, we waited three hours for the five staff members to slowly sell tickets to thousands of patient passangers. There was no sign at all that Train Italia considered the circumstances to be exceptional - they didn't even modify the line divider lay-out to allow an ordered line, having people sprawl out over the entire hall. After an hour of waiting they sent out someone to shout that there were no trains going north for two days. After another hour the same lady came out with a megaphone saying that Train Italia would put on an extra train to Milan, leaving in a few hours, no need to wait in line - just cram onto the train if you can and buy a ticket on the train. Idiots! I'm surprised there was not a riot on the platform and that no-one died after being pushed in front of a train. What made them decide to get rid of an orderly ticket system and start a free-for-all? We finally got to the front of the line and asked for the next tickets back to Belgium. The guy simply said "there are none". "Ever?" I replied skeptically. "Not today", he said with a shrug, "and not tomorrow". "Well how about the next day, or the day after that? We just want the next available tickets to Brussels". He finally started to click the screen half-heartedly for five minutes, then discussed his lunch choice with a coworker, before finally selling us overpriced train tickets for two days time to Milan, connecting the next day to Zurich and finally arriving just three days late in Brussels.

Obviously Eyjafjallajökull erupting can't be blamed on anyone. I'm glad the governments involved took proactive steps to shut down flights that could have been in danger, far better to have a central decision rather than let every airline decide for itself based on a profit calculation. But the disgrace has been the response of airports, airlines and governments to that decision. RyanAir would not let us rebook our flights online, since we had already checked in, and just sent a text message telling us to go to the airport to book. Rome Airport barely bothered to update its website, with the front page still praising the reductions in waiting times in 2009 and shopping specials. After a dozen clicks there was a message asking people not to come to the airport and a list of which flights were cancelled that didn't match the list produced by the airlines. We were lucky in being stranded in Rome, compared to 200 Bangladeshis who were stuck in Brussels airport as their plane was diverted and they didn't have a Belgian visa to leave the airport. Airlines, airports and governments could all have recognised that their actions would cause chaos and each could have stepped up with small measures that would have made things bearable, instead each acted as if it was business as normal.
Adrian_Liston says:
Ooh, and thanks for the iTunes tip-off.
Posted on: Apr 23, 2010
Adrian_Liston says:
I think you are right. It is safer for each employee to just follow the SOP, even when the SOPs are clearly not appropriate for an emergency situation. No one wants to risk getting in trouble later. I understand that, but I don't think anyone can be proud of it. There really should be disaster plans in place for transportation infrastructure, it is probably one of the most important areas to have plans in place.
Posted on: Apr 23, 2010
lamadude says:
As someone working in disaster planification every day I can tell you that there aren't disaster plans for everything, actually, not even for some very obvious things, and the companies don't create them unless forced by the government (and even then...)
The obvious reason being that these plans cost time and money to create and don't provide any immediate benifits, so they are often the first place where companies and even governments try to cut costs.

Another problem, more in general, especially in semi-public industries like many railway companies or private, but huge, companies like airlines, is that many people don't want to take responsibility when something goes wrong, they usually look to their superiors for any plan of action, and those superiors are affraid of being blamed for a situation so they try to get confirmation from an even higher echelon of the organisation before doing anything, and that person does the same etc etc. (in Belgium we call this "opening the umbrella" don't know if the expression exists in english)

Completely unrelated, did you get the free iphone lonely planet guides for all those European cities? It was free on the iTunes store today, I sent Lydia a message about it, must have downloaded 200$ worth of travel guides :)
Posted on: Apr 22, 2010
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