The recent eruption of a volcano beneath Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull glacier has, thankfully, not cost any human lives. It has, however, caused enormous economic disruption, strained patience, and political infighting.
Most non-emergency flights have been canceled, hundreds of thousands of people have been stranded, and the toll on the airline industry has already exceeded that of the 9/11 attacks. And the effects may well linger for many months to come.
Mother Nature’s toll was, at least, democratic.
Angela Merkel’s flight was diverted from Berlin to Lisbon and she had to get home by bus. Several world leaders, including President Obama, were unable to make it to the funeral for Polish President President Lech Kaczynski. Time‘s William Lee Adams adds, "Even royalty has had to bow to Mother Nature. Several monarchs have been delayed in their efforts to attend a celebration of the 70th birthday of Denmark’s Queen Margrethe."
The ripple effects have been felt worldwide. FT‘s Pilita Clark notes, "Disruption spread to Asia, where dozens of Europe-bound flights were cancelled and hotels from Beijing to Singapore strained to accommodate thousands of stranded passengers." And, believe it or not, the effects on Kenya’s flower industry are being described as "crippling."
Once again, having two massive oceans as neighbors has spared the United States the brunt of Europe’s woes and domestic flights have been largely unaffected. Still, "grounded flights in Europe have affected US flights due to fleet planning issues created by planes stuck in Europe."
And the famed London Book Fair has been severely impacted as well, although, London being London, the show naturally goes on. For the Brits, CSM‘s Peter Ford reports, this is just another grievance to add to their list against Reykjavik.
Giovanni Bisignani, the head of the International Air Transport Association, exclaimed, "This is a European embarrassment and it’s a European mess." And, he suggests, much of it was unnecessary: "The decision that Europe has made is with no risk assessment, no consultation, no co-ordination, no leadership," he said. "Europeans are still using a system based on a theoretical model which does not work … instead of using a system and taking decisions on facts and on risk assessment."
Naturally, the head of the airlines most impacted agree. Spiegel:
Europe’s airlines are becoming increasingly critical of the ongoing flight ban, which is costing them hundreds of millions of euros.
Wolfgang Mayrhuber, the CEO of Germany’s Lufthansa, Europe’s largest airline, expressed himself in strong words Sunday and dismissed concerns about passenger safety as unfounded. Many airlines have now completed test flights, Mayrhuber told the German television station ZDF on Sunday evening. After studying the ash cloud, they have come to the conclusion that the ash has become so dispersed "that there is no risk," he said.
When asked whether flights in Europe were currently possible, Mayrhuber answered: "Yes, that’s something we say very clearly." He added there might be "limits" to services. "We would never take risks," the Lufthansa boss said, but he emphasized that the existing data needed to be examined. "No one would fly through a cloud of volcanic ash, but what we have seen over the past three days did not pose any kind of potential danger."
Air Berlin CEO Joachim Hunold criticized the fact that the results of test flights had no influence on the decision of the air traffic control authorities as to whether to reopen airspace in countries across Europe. "In Germany, no one has even sent up a weather balloon to measure if volcanic ash is in the air, and if so, how much," Hunold told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
The Economist‘s Charlemagne, who typically isn’t shy about pointing out incompetence in Brussels, confesses to "being slightly taken aback by the ferocity of the ideological ding-dong now underway in the press and blogosphere, arguing that the whole flight ban is (a) proof of European risk aversion and (b) will be totally unsustainable if it lasts much longer, so must be rethought." His column is worth reading in full but, essentially, he figures that weighing life and death in cases involving exceedingly rare phenomena is difficult and that the airlines naturally have an incentive to blame government rather than Acts of God for their calamity.
As one might expect, the responsible governments take a similar position:
The German Transport Ministry said in a statement that there is no Europe-wide measurement network that could determine the ash concentration in the air, because volcanic eruptions of this kind are very rare. Indeed, the weather balloons operated by the German Weather Service (DWD) are not equipped with sensors capable of measuring concentrations of volcanic ash. For that reason, the distribution of the ash plume is being calculated on computers.
European flight safety authorities are basing their decisions to close airspaces on data provided by the London-based Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC). Over the weekend, the organization defended its forecast methods, saying they were "very reliable" and had been proven on many occasions. There are nine centers around the world established in the mid-1990s to help predict, detect and warn against the dangers to aviation posed by volcanic ash.
Earlier on Sunday, German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer had said that he would not allow himself "to be put under pressure by airlines" and emphasized that safety was the top priority. He said he would never allow "the risk to passengers’ life and limb to be offset against loss of revenue."
Albert Ansmann of the Leipnitz Institute for Tropospheric Research in Leipzig said it was a "baseless impertinence" to claim that "measurement isn’t taking place in Europe. From the Netherlands to Romania, we know where and how thick the ash cloud is." With a Europe-wide network of laser instruments set up at the start of the decade, "we have been measuring like crazy since Thursday."
The piece goes into great detail about the techniques being used.
Further, as CSM‘s Scott helpfully explains, it’s really not advisable to fly jet aircraft through thick clouds of volcano ash.
When these bits of volcanic glass get drawn into a gas turbine jet engine, they melt and fuse to parts of the engine. The melting point of volcanic ash is about 1,100 Celsius. But a jet engine operates at temperatures about 300 degrees hotter. The bits of glass tend to melt onto the fuel nozzles and turbine blades, rather than simply passing through the engine.
The result: the jet engine (or engines) may quit.
The volcanic ash tends to be concentrated at the high altitudes where commercial airliners fly. But near the ground, it’s dispersed, and doesn’t have the same effect on cars, trains, or ship engines.
The piece details the history of jets attempting to fly through volcanic dust. The dust, it seems, tends to win.
Still, it’s being admitted, the decisions may have been based on a too cautious reading of the data.
The computer models that guided decisions to impose a no-fly zone across most of Europe in recent days are based on incomplete science and limited data, according to European officials. As a result, they may have over-stated the risks to the public, needlessly grounding flights and damaging businesses.
“It is a black box in certain areas,” Matthias Ruete, the EU’s director-general for mobility and transport, said on Monday, noting that many of the assumptions in the computer models were not backed by scientific evidence.
European authorities were not sure about scientific questions, such as what concentration of ash was hazardous for jet engines, or at what rate ash fell from the sky, Mr Ruete said. “It’s one of the elements where, as far as I know, we’re not quite clear about it,” he admitted.
Regardless, all the complaining seems to be having an effect. Starting tomorrow, there will be more flights, CSM‘s David Scott reports. "On a national and European level, we have decided to move step by step toward a normalization, within the framework of strict security requirements," German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer told N24 television. The Brits, French, and Germans — and presumably others — have announced partial reopenings, with smaller no-fly zones.
One suspects, too, that this crisis will have a forcing effect on fixing a longstanding problem: The lack of a unified air traffic control system for Europe.
As with all economic crises that hit a particular industry hard, there are substitution effects. Spiegel reports that there has been a "mini-boom" in other parts of the German transportation sector, with ferry boats, buses, trains, and car rentals being the happy beneficiaries of the woes of Lufthansa and Air Berlin. Similar stories are being reported throughout Europe. And, of course, hotels, restaurants, and other sectors are getting an unexpected benefit from all the stranded travelers, too.
And the airlines could conceivably make up a lot of their losses from pent-up demand. Then again, George Mason economist Tyler Cowen guesses, "I suspect the regulators won’t let the airlines charge market-clearing prices for the first week of resumed flights."
Also, the whole thing has been a win for the environment, with one widely–circulated estimate saying that the 150,000 tons of CO2 spewed by the volcano is dwarfed by the the 344,109 tons saved by grounding all those planes.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. AP Photo.