First. Volcanic ash cases major problems with jet engines (see at least two near-miss major disasters in the 1980s). Given that the ash is being blown across northern Europe, one of the most densely used pieces of air space in the world, we have to exercise real caution and ground flights. We must not take the risk of anythinggoing wrong; after all we don't want another Locherbie-style disaster (different cause, of course, but similar effect) and inconveniencing a few (hundred thousand) people.is better than the repercussions of killing a couple of plane loads.
Second. The naysayers are of the belief that this is health and safety gone barmy. They contend (seemingly on little evidence) that a disaster is unlikely and that the world economy cannot be held to ransom in this way by disruption that could last weeks (at best) by a load of risk-averse numpties. In their favour there are reoprts that KLM have flown a plane through the ash cloud in Dutch air space without any damage (Lufthansa have also reportedly flown test flights); KLM are now pressing for the restrictions to be lifted.
As always there is a degree of logic on both sides. How does one weigh the cost (monetary or otherwise) of the potential for a major disaster against the inconvenience of not flying? This is hard and depends entirely on one's underlying philosophical approach to life (see the last section of this). I feel sure when the original "no fly" order was given the expectation was that the ash cloud would clear in a day or so. Now it seems the disruption may last weeks, even months or years, depending on the course of the eruption.
Is the disruption of air travel over much of northern Europe viable (even justified) for a protracted period? The powers that be seem to be working on the assumption that they have no option and that they have to be risk-averse. The naysayers contend that such disruption is not justified. Let's look at some aspects of the disruption:
- There are large numbers of people, who are through no fault of their own, are in the wrong place. They're either on holiday or away from home on business and unable to return. Or they are at home when they should be away on holiday, business or attending to family emergencies. Some are managing to travel, and anyone on mainland Europe has a chance of travelling over land or sea – capacity permitting. But anyone across the sea, eg. in the Canary Islands (as is at least one friend), in the Far East, the Americas or Africa is basically stuffed until air travel is resumed. Clearly anyone who is away and cannot get home may have issues with employment, studies, animal welfare, supply of essential medicines etc.
- This naturally has a knock-on effect on business. Business people can't travel to/from where they (think they) need to be. Is this a really justified concern? I suggest that in these days of efficient audio- and video-confereceing this should not be a concern for a large number of businesses. For the last several years before I retired I did almost no business travel despite running geographically spread teams – and I don't just mean people spread across the UK; I regulalry worked with, managed or worked for people right across Europe, in South Africa, the USA, India and Australia without once leaving the UK! What it does demand though is (a) more thought about organising teams and tasks, (b) reasonable telecomms and IT facilities, (c) most importantly a "can do" attitude on the part of those involved. By reducing travel in this way organisations can save millions of (select currency of your choice); that's millions a month for large companies (in 2005-ish just one sector of the company I used to work saved over $1m a month in travel). Clearly there are jobs which cannot be done remotely: anything which requires specifically my bodily presence, for instance anything medical or where I (and not anyone else) have to handle a specific object; but the range is increasingly small.
- The third aspect is the disruption of trade – or at least that part of it which has to be done by air-freighting stuff around the globe. This of course includes food supplies and the postal service. People are beginning to worry that we are going to run out of food. While my feeling is that this is unlikely, I concede that our choice of food may be restricted somewhat with anything being air-freighted around the globe dropping off the market – prices will get too inflated to be viable or it won't be possible to get the commodity from source to shop quickly enough. Indeed all prices may rise as a consequence of supply and demand. Is this a bad thing? Well clearly price rises are a bad thing, but beyond that it depends how one views food miles. For my part I suggest the reduction of food miles is a good thing.
So what of the long-term effects of all this? Well the following seems at least plausible:
- There will be a permenant downturn in business travel, as businesses discover they can save lots of cash for a small investment in remote working. Bad for the airlines; good for business generally and probably good for the work-life balance of many professionals.
- There will also be a further downturn in foreign holidays – at least where air travel is required. Again bad for the airlines and the holiday companies; good for trail/ferry companies, the indigenous holiday sector and maybe even, longer-term, for heavy engineering like shipbuilding.
- Also there might, with luck, be a downturn in the amount of food we ship (specifically air-freight) around the world; either because we get used to doing without it, because it can't be shipped fast enough or because Joe Public won't pay the inflated prices. Undoubtedly this will be bad for the producers and the airlines. But it should be good for local farmers who might be encouraged to put land to better use and it could lead towards the much needed restructuring of world-wide agriculture (which I've written about before, see for example here and here).
- All of this leads to a long-term downturn in aviation with (if ones believes in it) a positive effect on climate change and probably several airlines going out of business.
And as a final thought: who can now justify the expansion of Heathrow, or indeed any other airport?