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Ash You Like It

Grimsvotn may not be a name that chimes a responsive chord in most people, but, for business travelers, the reaction can be, pardon my pun, explosive. Grimsvotn (GREEMSH-votn) is another of those Icelandic volcanoes that have taken to darkening the skies of northern Europe, causing concern among the European aviation community. In language that you have to admire for the way it states the patently obvious, Eurocontrol, which coordinates the flow of air traffic over Europe, announced that "the situation is constantly evolving." Translation: We have no idea what in the world it's going to do next.

Iceland itself has imposed a no-fly zone covering a 120-nautical-mile radius around the volcano. Yet Eurocontrol is also saying, at least at the outset, that the the eruption is not causing a big impact on flights, because the main ash plume is drifting northward, away from most flight paths. The key word here is "most." Meaning that if you were planning to fly between England and Scotland, your flight has been cancelled because of concern about a smaller, south-drifting plume.

European officials are nervous not only because they realize the damage ash can do to jet engines, but because of the damage the eruption can do to flight schedules. They recall the impact another Icelandic volcano—Eyjafjallajokull—had when it erupted in April 2010.

Meantime, the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) is jumping in with new volcanic ash procedures and contingency plans framed since the April 2010 eruption. Following the Eyjafjallajokull's blowup, and in the spirit of "no bureaucracy is too much bureaucracy," Eurocontrol and other European regulatory agencies have established the breathlessly named "European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell." In what can only be called a masterstroke, the Cell and participating agencies have decided to leave it up to the airlines to decide if they will fly in areas populated by airborne puffs of hard, sharp lava particles. The role the regulators took for themselves? Risk assessment. That's right. They'll tell the air carriers how risky it is to fly today.

Of course, the threat of jet engines entraining the talc-like volcanic dust while a plane is in the air is quite real. As one writer who spoke to Boeing relates, "many jets have been damaged by ash in the past 30 years." One of the most dramatic examples of the destructive power of ash is the Boeing 747 that flew into a cloud from the erupting Galunggung volcano in Indonesia in 1982. The plane lost thrust from all four engines. Diving from its cruising altitude of 36,000 feet, the jet fell to 12,500 feet before the engines would restart.

The irony of the timing of the latest Icelandic eruption is, as the Los Angeles Times' Jane Engle points out, "[it] comes as airlines have been expanding service to Iceland." Both Delta and Icelandair have been adding routes between the U.S. and Iceland. Yet the only strategy the airlines and aviation officials have is to avoid flying anywhere near the ash clouds, which have hit heights between 20,000 and 35,000 feet—i.e., cruising altitude—while they wait for the dust to settle. The true irony is how little a high-tech industry like the travel business can do in face of a sneeze from Ma Nature.


Road Warrior • Miami • Madrid • • Twitter: @tentofortysix