British Airways has moved from battling with the trade unions to facing a far less forseeable enemy

In my time as a marketer, I have signed many a contract on behalf of my employers and they have all contained those mysterious words “force majeure”.

I remember early in my career when I was responsible for managing an on-pack sales promotion. We were offering a large number of prizes that were being sourced from the Far East.

It was important that these arrived in the UK on time or we could have had a Hoover-style fulfillment problem on our hands. It was my job to get a contract in place that protected our interests. I remember asking our legal team what this force majeure thing was all about, as I wasn’t keen on anything that let our supplier off the hook.

The legal guys assured me that it was protocol legal verbage and not something that I should lose any sleep over. I suspect a few brand managers were wide awake this week as they assess the knock-on impact of flights remaining grounded across Europe.

For the record, force majeure (French for “superior force”) is a common clause in contracts, which essentially frees both parties from liability or obligation when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties, such as war, strike action, riot or an event described by the legal term “act of God”, such as flooding, earthquake or volcanic eruption.

British Airways has moved from battling with the trade unions to facing a far less forseeable enemy.

I suspect that volcanic ash was not high on the list of threats when we completed our SWOT analysis this year, but there can’t be many businesses that are not now dusting off their legal agreements to understand their positions.

Much has already been written about the impact on the aviation industry. Within a matter of days, British Airways has moved from battling with the trade unions to facing a far less forseeable enemy. As they say, it never rains but it pours… dust in this case.

The overall impact on business is hard to quantify, but I suspect it will end up being far greater than anybody could possibly have forecast. I myself am now grounded for the next few days, with a planned business trip overseas already cancelled. I shall be back in the office and fully expect our sales team to tell me that our April numbers may be a little soft due to a volcano in Iceland. Typical. They always blame the weather.

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