Opinion: Ash happens. Let’s keep it in perspective

Ian TaylorThe volcanic ash cloud that has grounded all UK flights serves as a reminder of how much we take for granted.

The natural world is not reducible to daily schedules. Indeed, all travel is subject to delay and cancellation. Trains don’t run or are late. Cars break down or sit in traffic. Occasionally I fall off my bike.

What is remarkable about flying is how little the day-to-day airport routine is disrupted, notwithstanding Heathrow airspace and bank holidays.

The problem is this leaves air passengers with unreasonable expectations of the ease of crossing continents at 38,000 feet. Surely it is good to know safety takes priority even in the age of 20-minute turnarounds at airports?

Of course, it’s reasonable to expect to be kept informed when events curtail our travel plans. But mass travel makes queues and congestion inevitable when something goes wrong. It also requires the kind of fare structure that leads to savings on the personnel that might otherwise provide more information.

No doubt some joker will claim we should have had more warning of the eruption, or that the airlines, airports or air traffic control should have been better prepared.

“We have unreasonable expectations of the ease of crossing continents at 38,000 feet”

Maybe the ash cloud will become an election issue. Why do aircraft fly at the very height of such a cloud anyway? Why do their engines run at 2,000C – hot enough to turn the rock and dust back to a molten state? And hasn’t Iceland already caused enough harm in the past two years with its collapsed banks?

A sense of perspective might help. This is not another 9/11, some in the industry have already suggested. There are not thousands dead. There is no threat of war as a result. The eruption does not herald decades of enhanced security.

There is some rock and ash in the atmosphere. The same kind of stuff has been there before – though not on this scale, in this area, since the decades of mass flying began. The cloud will remain there as long as the volcano erupts and that could be hours, days or – perish the thought – weeks.

That would cause problems, of course, and pain for those whose holiday or wedding plans are disrupted. A prolonged halt to flying might even be enough to tip the economy into that double-dip recession we have been told has become less likely.

More probable, however, is that the disruption will last a few days. We’ll all become amateur volcanologists. And it will be remembered as an event similar to the snowfall just over a year ago that disrupted flights and commutes for a few days.

Two points may be worth noting when the hubbub dies down. On the macro level, this kind of disruption is something we may have to get used to if the predictions of climate scientists prove anywhere near accurate.

And on the personal level, most of us would probably benefit from being a little more flexible in our travel plans and our schedules, and a bit less preoccupied with the clock.


Share article

View Comments

Jacobs Media Group is honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

The highest official awards for UK businesses since being established by royal warrant in 1965. Read more.