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Caught in an ash crisis

It's a sign of our times that an erupting volcano in Iceland could ground flights continents away. Here is a first-person account of the ensuing chaos

travel Updated: Apr 24, 2010 19:01 IST

An estimated seven million airline passengers across the world have faced disruptions to their travel plans due to the cloud of volcanic ash which spewed out of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Iceland and drifted over Europe. Some journeys did not even begin and many more passengers are stranded abroad with no idea of when they will eventually get home. Frustratingly, I fall into the latter category.
As I look out of the window of my hotel room in the German city of Hamburg, the sun is shining and the sky is bright blue. It's a perfect spring day. When I first heard that a cloud of volcanic ash was drifting towards Europe, I expected that the heavens would darken like some scene from a Millenarian movie or, at the very least, that the sky would take on a mysterious, hazy hue. But here at sea level, there is precious little evidence that the sky at 30,000 feet -- the cruising altitude of commercial airliners -- is polluted by a cloud of ash.
Experts told us that the cloud consists of billions of minute mineral particles that could be sucked into the vents of airliners. Those particles could then be turned to a glass-like substance by the heat of the turbines, and would clog the cooling system and result in engines overheating and eventually shutting down. In worst case scenarios, this would lead to planes crashing. Two incidents in which crashes were narrowly avoided were cited as examples of the dangers posed by volcanic ash to jet aeroplanes. Continued from P 9
Both happened in the 1980s. One took place over Indonesia in 1982 while the other occurred in Alaskan airspace seven years later. Like most of my fellow would-be flyers, I understood that the aviation authorities in Europe did not taken the decision to close airspace lightly. The safety of passengers comes first. But the longer the airports remained closed, the louder the calls became for the airways to be re-opened.

Global impact
In this global economy, businesses are unable to shift people and products to where they are needed. This had a knock-on effect in countries such as Kenya, where a million fresh flowers couldn't be flown to European markets. The aviation industry itself struggled last year, due to the global recession; companies posted combined losses of around $9 billion. According to the International Air Transport Assocaition, the losses incurred by the industry amount to $1.6 bn in terms of lost sales alone.
Giovanni Bisignani of IATA has voiced criticism of how the governments of Europe have dealt with the issue. A growing number of people within the aviation industry have criticised the measures that were taken.

The price of an 'act of God'
For normal people -- travellers such as myself -- the situation is also frustrating. The fact that I'm away from home disturbs me less than the realisation that I'm not at all sure when I'll get back to the familiar comfort of my own bed. When flights do eventually restart, how long will it take for me to re-book on to a plane? Demand for seats will be heavy. My expenses are mounting. I've already had several additional nights in hotels and have had to pay for meals and several long international phone calls.
Reports coming in on the television suggest that travel insurance companies will not pay out on claims for expenses incurred by delays; the eruption of Eyjafjallajoekull has been deemed an "act of God". In twenty-first century Europe, where atheism and agnosticism is rife, this will come as unpleasant news; especially to out-of-pocket non-believers additionally irked by such terminology.
The timing could hardly have been worse. The eruption of Eyjafjallajoekull started on April 14, while many European families were away enjoying their Easter holidays. Many of them have been so far been unable to return home. While some people are enjoying an extended vacation, others face the prospect of losing money due to time away from the workplace.

Where the wind blows
Personally, I have mixed feelings about the situation. I've used the additional time here to explore parts of the city that I didn't know and to visit attractions. This is a great city and there's plenty to keep me occupied, so in some senses it has been fun. But living a day-to-day existence feels strange and waiting to get on board a flight has hit my wallet hard. Seeking an alternative route home will be time consuming and expensive. Like many others, I'm starting to wonder how long this will go on.
Interestingly, the last eruption of Eyjafjallajoekull started in December 1821 and continued until January 1823. Although the amount of ash emanating from the volcano has reduced, travellers and businesses could face major disruptions to their plans into 2011.
Will this eruption and the impact it is having shake European confidence that natural disasters can be overcome? Like sailors in times of old, the fortune of travellers and Europe's economy seems dependent on the direction wind. Perhaps the disruptions are only just beginning?
I, like many, hope not.

Stuart is a freelance writer based in London. At the time of going to press, Stuart was still in Hamburg and trying to find ways to get home.

Getting there
Most major European airlines including Lufthansa, Air France-KLM, Swiss and Finnair offer flights to Hamburg via European destinations.

Getting around
Buy the Hamburg Card to avail of free travel by public transport within the city, free or discounted tickets to museums, special rates on boat excursions and guided bus tours, and a discount in various shopping malls and stores. A day ticket valid costs €8.50 or approx Rs 500.

Some are calling the choas following the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, the 'ash crisis'. Others have dubbed their forced sojourns in distant outposts of the world 'volcations'. Now that the clouds are clearing -- literally -- over European airspace, it is easier to make light of the logistical nightmare that the world faced since the volcano erupted on April 14.
But for the European airlines whose operations were severely disrupted and passengers scrambling to get home, it will be a while before things get back to normal.
For airlines that had only just begun to recover from the economic slowdown, this crisis will have a lingering impact. "Two weeks of lost revenue can mean the difference between an annual profit or loss," says Hari Nair, founder and CEO of travel portal, HolidayIQ.
According to Pieter De Man, general manager for Air France-KLM in the Indian subcontinent, the airline incurred a loss of 35 mn euros per day for five days during the crisis. But he is optimistic about future prospects. "The world's financial situation is improving. We are very confident and moving forward in the right direction. The outlook is to break even for the financial year 2010/11," he says.

First Published: Apr 24, 2010 19:01 IST