It’s been an odd few days in Europe… Thursday’s eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull has shut down the airspace over much of the continent, beginning with an impact on airlines, airline passengers, and slowly seeping into a much wider sphere ranging from vegetables to music festivals. With current uncertainty over its duration with speculation from a matter of days to a matter of months, this author poses what a short-term future without air travel would hold for the UK?
A risk of aircraft failure due to volcanic ash has triggered caution in an already fragile airline industry and grounded flights across most of Europe. A reactionary embargo last Thursday has been criticised by airline body IATA, as they predict closures are costing airlines $200m a day in lost revenue, and more in compensation to passengers. A disruption of this scale is unheard of in the industry, and with the 9/11 restrictions as the closest possible comparison, the anticipated time and cost to reinstate flight schedules will undoubtedly have a terminal effect on some frailer airlines. The impact was also evident this weekend in the world of entertainment with Eddie Jordan providing his Chinese Grand Prix commentary via link from London rather than on the ground in China, and an estimated 130 acts due to appear at California’s Coachella festival stranded in Europe. This week will see effects from the issues around importing – stockpiles of fruit, vegetables and flowers, for example, are filling Nairobi airport awaiting transit to Europe, which may see more empty supermarket shelves or prices at a premium. The knock on effect for the 1.2 million Kenyans supported by the flower industry alone may be catastrophic as 97% of their market is in Europe. This will be a picture reflective of a number of countries. Imagine if this is to continue if the volcano continues its eruption for a matter of months as some scientists comment – no travel by air impacting both on tourism and business executives who travel for work, the inability to import perishable items from overseas, the increased costs on importing items manufactured in the far east, the inability for contractors, participants and press to travel to world sporting events such as the world cup, F1 or Wimbledon. It could be a very odd summer indeed. There are, of course, opportunities to be seized from the catastrophe. Imagine the boost to UK and European tourism this summer for those who prefer to travel by road or rail. Tourism bodies around the world are already offering support, discounts and suggestions on activities to occupy the stranded European tourists, creating more warm memories of a destination when in a difficult situation – creating a more likely revisit. As with any disaster, the way organisations respond will be remembered long after the resolution. There could also be a boost to local manufacturing and farming as imported supplies become more scarce, creating a switch to local producers through lack of choice but perhaps creating a longer-term market for these products. Who knows, we may even see a British male win the London marathon Men’s Elite Race this weekend for the first time since 1993. Perhaps it will continue, perhaps it will be over in days. With a number of airlines running test flights this past weekend, the industry may find a solution to the risk. Willie Walsh even joined the BA test flight from Heathrow to Cardiff, demonstrating his personal accountability for the airline, creating a stronger image as figurehead of our most prominent and topical airline of late. Either way, like many, I’ll continue to watch the skies with interest.