The unprecedented paralysis of European airspace as a result of atmospheric ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano has had widespread consequences for meetings and events throughout Europe. It’s also disrupted meetings in the U.S. and elsewhere, as European attendees, exhibitors, and presenters have had to cancel—or can’t get home.

Approximately 5,000 flights took place in European airspace on Sunday, compared to a normal load of almost 25,000 flights, according to Eurocontrol, the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation. Eurocontrol expected up to 9,000 flights to take place Monday out of the usual 28,000. There is hope that the number of flights will increase markedly as the week goes on.

The International Air Transport Association estimates that the problem is costing airlines in excess of $200 million per day in lost revenues. In addition to lost revenues, airlines will incur added costs for rerouting of aircraft, care for stranded passengers, and stranded aircraft at various ports.

The Air Transport Association reports that, as of April 19, U.S. carriers had canceled approximately 287 flights as a result of Iceland’s volcanic activity.

Loretta Lowe, CMP, president and owner of Meeting Planning and Special Events, a San Francisco–based meeting planning company, was in the final stages of planning a London-based user conference for 120 IT professionals when news of the ash cloud broke late Wednesday night.

Users were coming from all over Europe (primarily from the U.K., Germany, and Norway), and company executives and speakers would be arriving from the United States for the April 20–22 conference at the London Park Plaza Westminster Bridge. With much of the European airspace closed and the meeting just days away, talk among the organizers had turned by early Friday from contingency planning to postponement.

“We considered holding a ‘local only’ small meeting for those who were in the U.K., videoconferencing the speakers, and setting up satellite videoconference locations throughout Europe—or canceling altogether and rebooking at a later time,” wrote Lowe on the Meetings Community listserv. “One main concern was letting the delegates know before the weekend.”

Mid-Friday afternoon, U.K. time, an e-mail was sent to inform attendees that the meeting had been suspended. A Web conference has been set up for the user group this week and Lowe says there will be no financial damages for rescheduling. “Our current challenge is finding a date to rebook. We also had to cancel the off-site party location, audiovisual, entertainment, décor, and other services.”

Many U.S. meetings are also taking a hit. About half of the 200 attendees expected for the G20 meeting, which began Monday in Washington, were coming from Europe, said Chip Smith, vice president for government marketing for Experient, which is providing conference logistics. The meeting began on schedule, but with ministers from a number of countries, including Britain, France, and Germany unable to attend.

The Force Majeure Question
From a legal perspective, the situation is challenging for U.S. meetings that face a steep drop in European attendance. As association law attorney James M. Goldberg, Goldberg & Associates, Washington, D.C., points out, “it depends on how the contract is written. For example, most [force majeure] provisions give the group the ability only to terminate, not partially perform.” So if a portion of your delegates can’t get to the meeting, force majeure may not provide protection. Also, Goldberg says, contracts usually require “the force majeure occurrence to make compliance ‘illegal or impossible,’ which, depending on how many attendees are stranded, may not be the case.” Finally, says Goldberg, “if a transportation shut-down is not specifically stated [in the contract language], there may be a question as to whether this is an emergency, if that term is used.”

Attorney Tyra W. Hilliard, CMP, Hilliard Associates LLC, points out that meetings affected by widespread flight cancellations may also face charges for extending time in meeting venues or expenses for storing goods for a period of time or using vendor services for longer than initially planned. Organizations will also need to be thinking about “the goodwill destroyed if it does not refund registration fees,” she says, or even consider reimbursements for airfares if the airline won't provide a refund.

Attorneys agree that there is no legal obligation for a group to house stranded European attendees. However, Hilliard points out that they can expect to be called on. “There are certainly at least intangible repercussions to reputation, member retention, and the like if the group just washes its hands of attendees in a time of crisis,” she says. “For example, what if an attendee runs out of medication in a foreign country? The planner needs to be prepared to help address that need. Likewise, communication will be a big issue. What can the planner do to facilitate attendees’ communication with the people back home? The planner may also need to work with the hotel, which may need attendee rooms for arriving guests.”

ICCA's Ash Survey
In an effort to quantify the effects of the volcanic eruption on the international meetings industry, the International Congress and Convention Association has launched a survey, asking its members—convention bureaus, tourist boards, convention centers, and other conference support organizations— “how you have been affected, what solutions you may have put in place to deal with current emergencies, and what you believe this incident means for the future of the meetings business generally.” The results will be reported in May at the IMEX conference.