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Outlook: cloudy

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Outlook: cloudy

The Economist

NORTHERN Europeans will not forget the name Eyjafjallajokull in a hurry, even if they may have trouble pronouncing it. Monday April 19th marked a fifth day of jet-free skies over a huge swathe of the continent as a result of the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, which began pumping significant quantities of ash into the sky last Wednesday. That fine volcanic ash could pose a risk to jet engines, which have cut out in the past after exposure to similar volcanic material. Many of Europe’s busiest airports remained out of action.

Britain’s National Air Traffic Service, an organisation that co-ordinates air travel, said that the flight ban would remain in place until early Tuesday morning at the earliest. Airspace remained largely closed in the Netherlands and Germany. But across Europe a handful of planes took to the air. Norway, Sweden and Finland allowed a few mainly domestic flights to operate, taking advantage of clearing skies. And though several European airlines conducted successful test flights in the danger zone, the engines of a Finnish military jet suffered considerable damage as a result of breathing in the ash.

For all the attention the troublesome cloud of ash is getting, nobody yet has a good answer as to how long the disruption will last. For one thing, the European Aviation Safety Agency says that there is currently no consensus as to what is an acceptable level of ash in the atmosphere. Furthermore, there is no way of telling what concentration of ash the test aircraft were flying through. The best source of information for the moment is a theoretical model of where the cloud might be, taking into account the prevailing wind and other weather conditions. One interesting wrinkle is that studies of natural disasters tend to be paid for by insurance companies. As volcano eruption is deemed to be an uninsurable risk, there are few studies to turn to.

This uncertainty has lead the International Air Transport Association to plead on behalf of its members for Europe’s government to rethink policy on shutting airspace. The industry body reckons that its members are losing $200m a day as a result of the shut-down. On Monday British Airways said that it and other European airlines had asked for cash from the EU in compensation for the losses suffered because of the closure of airspace, citing the bail-out offered to American airlines in the wake of the September 11th 2001 terror attacks. IATA reckons the situation for Europe's airlines is even worse.

There are several ways that the damage wrought by Icelands’ volcano might be mitigated. If meteorologists and volcanologists can develop a dynamic model of the ash cloud’s progress it may be possible, as it has been in Scandinavia, to open up more airports and re-route planes to get passengers moving again. Wind patterns could change at any time and some reckon that they might do so by the end of the week. If the ash cloud were to drift in another direction flights could be sent around or above it. But while it currently sits over Europe’s biggest airports that is all but impossible. And passengers may decide not to make trips in case the temporary respite reverses along with the wind stranding them far from home.

If it seems that the disruption could continue for days or even weeks longer the ad hoc efforts to get people home could develop into more permanent solutions for those making essential trips. Madrid’s large airport, currently unaffected by the ash cloud, could handle extra flights with passengers then continuing their journey north by land. Cross-channel ferries and the Eurostar trains that connect London with Brussels, Paris and points beyond are currently full to bursting with short-haul flyers returning home and businessmen who have no alternative but to travel. But these services and Europe’s rail and road networks could provide some with alternative means of getting to their destinations.

Some air freight might take to the road or water--98% of the world’s trade is already carried by ship. And plenty of the world’s container vessels are sitting idly waiting for the world economy to pick up after the recent recession in the rich world. But for some freight, from Formula One racing cars stuck in China after Sunday's grand prix there to flowers farmed in Kenya and destined for restaurant tables in London, there is no alternative route.

Even if the volcano stopped emitting ash immediately, it might take two or more weeks before airlines can restore schedules with planes and crew stuck around the globe along with their passengers. Some fear that they could be in for a long wait. Icelandic volcanic activity has been low for some time. Eyjafjallajokull is particularly prone to producing the fine ash that has caused the current mayhem.

The last big eruption from Eyjafjallajokull, in 1821, belched ash into the atmosphere for over a year. Perhaps even more worrying than that is the risk that the neighbouring Katla volcano might erupt too. Archaeological evidence suggests that when roused it is even more destructive.

So far, aside from airlines and air travellers, the impact has been limited. But as the shut-down continues Europe’s fragile economies will suffer as tourists fail to arrive, meetings are cancelled and businesses with supply chains that rely on air freight nervously watch stocks running down.

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On Monday British Airways said that it and other European airlines had asked for cash from the EU in compensation for the losses suffered because of the closure of airspace, citing the bail-out offered to American airlines in the wake of the September 11th 2001 terror attacks. IATA reckons the situation for Europe's airlines is even worse.

uhm.... why?

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uhm.... why?

Probably because the European carriers were already pummeled by the recession, and this volcano mess could very well drag on for much longer.

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For some perpective:

Here is a flight tracker on a normal day:

airtraffic.jpg

And here is the EU flight tracker today:

Screen%20shot%202010-04-18%20at%2011.29.47%20PM.png

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Probably because the European carriers were already pummeled by the recession, and this volcano mess could very well drag on for much longer.

Unless there is a new large eruption, I'm already seeing flights picking back up on flight tracker.

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Unless there is a new large eruption, I'm already seeing flights picking back up on flight tracker.

The goal is to improve from 30% to 50% across Europe (the South was never affected), but major airports are still closed until they run more tests on test planes that have flown through the ash. As this article mentioned, even if wind patterns open up a travel window now, people will still be wary of going anywhere should winds change back and trap people far from home.

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well, at this point the airlines just need to catch up with the back log of people returning home....

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I'd be scared of an eruption of something called 'Eyjafjallajokull'... is that even pronounceable?

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Apparently, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Hamburg are re-opening.....

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Supposedly some airports in Britain will open on a limited basis tomorrow. Once air space is open it will take at least a few days to get everything back to some semblance of normalcy. The BBC published an email from a couple stuck in Hanoi that were told they shouldn't expect a flight until the 28th...

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BTW, I'm reading that travel insurance won't cover this type of event because it's an act of god. I don't know what makes a volcano an act of god but a hurricane isn't.

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BTW, I'm reading that travel insurance won't cover this type of event because it's an act of god. I don't know what makes a volcano an act of god but a hurricane isn't.

Yes, that was mentioned in the original article. Airlines are taking a huge hit in uninsured losses, and the fact that insurance companies don't cover it means there's a paucity of research on the effects on aircraft.

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I'd be scared of an eruption of something called 'Eyjafjallajokull'... is that even pronounceable?

Sounds it would be a great name for an Icelandic metal band.

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Yes, that was mentioned in the original article. Airlines are taking a huge hit in uninsured losses, and the fact that insurance companies don't cover it means there's a paucity of research on the effects on aircraft.

I think that is insurance for the airlines themselves...... I'm talking about the "trip insurance" that you can get when you buy your tickets that covers things like lost luggage and extra hotel days due to canceled flights.

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