Archive for April, 2010

What flows from volcanoes

26th April 2010

Volcano-Saturday-003In the few days following April 15th 2010, the UK became a different place.  An unpronounceable volcano in Iceland huffed ash into the wind and uncertainty into the lives of an estimated 100,000 Britons as UK airspace closed down and they were stranded abroad.  With normality now resumed and vapour trails once more crossing the sky, arguments over who will bear the financial cost prevail but this volcano refugee for one just wonders whether there aren’t some other lessons to learn from the event.

In economic terms the airlines, already suffering losses of $3.8 billion in 2009, claimed to be losing $400 million per day in lost revenues and compensation claims from stranded passengers.  Airports say that they have lost $250 million and exporters of perishables have seen $8 million worth of produce destroyed despite the efforts of the mighty Tesco supply chain which had an alternative route into the UK in place for the florists of East Africa a few days into the chaos.  But the Economist reports that only 2% of the world’s exports are flown by air and for each of those losers there will be some winners – Paris and Madrid both enjoyed some early Spring sunshine for the tens of thousands of extra visitors in their hotels and restaurants – and the overall impact on the world’s economy is likely to be limited.

Many UK offices, schools and hospitals began the week of 19 April with some empty desks but here the effect seems benign rather than caustic.  Alain de Botton, whose presence on Twitter must make him the closest thing we can manage to a popular philosopher, wrote that ‘There are meetings which, when cancelled at the last minute, give one an ecstatic feeling of having cheated death for a little longer’, which is stronger than many would put it but is an interesting observation on what seemed to happen.  The disruption became an opportunity rather than a threat for many – an opportunity to gain a few extra days with the family (or without them) for those stranded and an opportunity to indulge in what Karl Weick calls “galumphing” –  release from goal-pressure – for those left behind who suddenly had emptier diaries.

So with the planes flying again, only the arguments remain.  Initially grounded by an engineering estimate that the tolerance of the modern jet engine to volcanic dust was nil, the aircraft took to the skies again by a revision of that tolerance upwards under huge pressure from, well, everyone involved, really.  One is bound to be cynical about the speed of this review and equally bound to wonder why it took a crisis to make the decision under pressure when the Guardian reports that the risk was known as long ago as 2007.  Equally, the airlines claim for compensation from European governments and grudging reluctance to stand behind their legal liability to the millions of stranded passengers (led, as usual, by the odiously self-interested RyanAir) beg the question as to why these sophisticated global organisations seem to be taken by surprise by a piece of legislation which dates back more than six years and which they operate every day.

Right here and now the volcanologists warn that this particular volcano is a baby compared to some bigger beasts that have shorter names and the events of April 2010 may be the first of their kind but are unlikely to be the last.  For airlines and jet engineers we must hope that what flowed from this volcano will be a greater preparedness for the next by paying attention to what they know even if it seems a distant risk.  For those who enjoyed the opportunity for a little Weickian galumphing it could be too much to hope that they might engineer the opportunity in the future without the help of some lava from Iceland.