Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Saturday 17 April 2010

Volcanic ash, air traffic disruption and the consequences

We are just getting used to a world (in much of Europe at least) where over the past several days, air travel has become all but impossible. Yesterday some flights were being allowed into Scottish air-space (mainly trans-Atlantic flights and flights to/from Scottish islands), but the ban has been re-instated today.

It may be that in a few days the wind-directions will have changed sufficiently, or that the volcano in Iceland will halt or slow-down the rate at which it is discharging debris into the atmosphere to allow air transportation involving most of Europe to be possible again. So there would have been, say, a week or two weeks of major disruption, no doubt some severe loss of revenue for certain airlines (who still have to pay regular expenses such as salaries or finance costs for loans) and for individuals perhaps some expense they can ill-afford or difficulty getting where they want to be, but ultimately it will have been a mere 'blip' in history. I am not one of nature's pessimists, so this is the kind of scenario I envisage and certainly hope for.

But what if this optimistic outcome doesn't happen? What if the disruption continues for a month? Three months? Six months? A year? What might the social, economic and perhaps political consequences be?

For a start, the days of easy, quick travel would be over for the vast majority of people. The first time I ever flew in an aircraft was in 1967 or thereabouts, so far as I recall, and I must have taken many hundreds of flights since then. For my present stay in Spain it should not affect me much, because I travelled here and am scheduled to travel back by road and ferry. But what about my usual one month visit to Spain in the Autumn, when I would normally have flown? Will I be able to make the trip, or will I bother trying to do so if I cannot fly? I'm not one of those people who pops across to someplace in Europe by aeroplane for a weekend or or a few days, basically because I live in a part of the UK where there are almost no international flights from my nearest airport, so requiring transit via some other UK airport with more flights. But many people do live near big airports and have grown accustomed to travelling all over Europe for a [long]-weekend. Basically, none of these trips would be possible any more, period. Simply because by the time one took a train/ferry to go most places it would already be time to come back. Apart from these leisure trips, business travel would be severely affected and would probably lead to a huge expansion of teleconferencing (something that should probably happen more and more anyway). No more would we get air-shipment of highly-perishable foods such as some fruits and vegetables 'out of season'. The 'green' lobby might be pleased, although I cannot see it as tremendously positive if these changes have come about because the atmoosphere has become clogged-up with volcanic ash. Let's face it, things could become much more serious if the volcanic ash cloud became a semi-permanent feature and affected crop production. Curtailed leisure travel would be the least of our worries!

I don't really think that any of these apocalytpic visions is likely to happen, but the events of the past few days do bring home just how fragile our civilisation is. It could all disappear very easily because of factors we have absolutely no way of stopping or changing. Have a great weekend!

PS/ So far the present events have afftected people I know in the following ways:
-a guest who should have travelled here two days ago for a break of about ten days has had to cancel her trip;
- a friend (and former colleague) who now works in Rome usually travels home to Paris every weekend to see her children and has probably had to cancel her trip;
- guests scheduled to come here in just over two weeks may see their plans affected if the situation does not improve soon.
Minor problems, I suppose, but many hundreds of thousands are probably affected in similar or worse ways.


  1. You're closer to it up there - does it blot out the sky?

  2. I'm not close to it at all at present. I've been at my home in Spain since early March and will be here until toward the end of May (see the sub-heading at the top of the blog page). I understand also that it's almost impossible to see this plume of ash, however damaging it may be to aircraft engines.



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