It is time for an honest explanation of how long the ash could disrupt travel, commerce, post, food and all those things we now depend on the airplane for. Certainly, waiting will do nothing, and while stranded passengers are indeed stranded, efforts must be taken to help them get home. A person leaving the UK by boat on Friday would be arriving in NY within a week, and they’d be home; better than waiting airside at the airport. Clearly, too, our methods for handling large numbers of people stranded in such a way leaves much to be desired — it is hardly appropriate to trap them in airports because they lack entry visas — fresh thinking is needed, and quick, but we also need some longer term thinking.
We have air traffic chaos, probably some potential health problems for people inhaling the ash (COPD and asthma for example), potential acid rain in due course, and growing economic concerns that Kenyan fine beans will not reach the shops of Europe. But many people are also stranded and transatlantic travel is at a standstill — no people, no post, no FedEx.
What have been early responses apart from the silence of the governments?
We see business executives using teleconferencing instead, but this obviously does not interest the airline industry as the bulk of their profits come from business travellers, who cannot easily postpone their travel — they travel for a reason and now those reasons are being met in other ways. The shops will soon empty of produce air freighted in — so local farmers will have to do what they should have been doing anyway –growing the stuff that gets imported. As for Kenya, well, it will have to stop exporting its water. The international trade in flowers will suffer. We may see some industry restructuring downward, things will get more expensive, we may have another recession. We may need to get used to a lower standard of living, we may need to change our expectations, we may find other ways to have fun. We see people moaning that they can’t get to London from Scotland by air to sign a book of condolence at the Polish embassy — take the train m’lady! Air travel is useful, but far from essential, and rail, ferry, bus and shipping lines have moved to provide alternatives (at a price, it might be added). I won’t comment on the lack of clarity from the insurance industry — they are their own worst en
But what if this cloud bubbles away for a year and the ash continues to be a threat — sending it elsewhere just sends the problem elsewhere. Can we reasonably expect the airline industry to operate through small ash-free windows when they become safe and available? Hardly something scheduled airlines would be comfortable with and broadly useless as a sustainable strategy. Executives and business travellers will find other ways to do their business and I guess a lot of people will take their vacations at home, or at least places they can get to terrestrially. Perhaps new airline engines will be developed that are ash resistent (filters anyone). Perhaps some laggard countries will simply get on with building high-speed rail and toll roads to speed terrestrial movement — France seems particularly well positioned, the UK not. A smaller airline industry beckons (they are losing millions at the current scale of infrastructure, so shrink).
However, we do need reliable transatlantic travel; with air movement at risk, the alternative is the sea. My entrepreneurial question is this: how long before someone figures out there is a market for high-speed transatlantic ships (jet powered perhaps, hydrofoils, water skimming with perhaps a 2 day journey from Southampton to New York. Our response to date is that this will, literally blow over; but we’ve been lazy in our thinking because planes existed and made travel easy (though certainly less pleasant in the past few years). Train travel, though, slower is more pleasant, and perhaps with some roadside tweaking, travel by car could be more pleasant. Perhaps this is a hinge-point in our travel technology, that will open up alternatives.
The earth is always restless. This Icelandic eruption is showing how easily Europe and North America can become disconnected. It may be a lesson for us humans should similar events transpire with other volcanoes (we do tend to forget that nature follows different rules).
Here are a few places where the future is being invented with high-speed ships:
Is it possible that “every ash cloud has a silver lining”?