Wednesday, April 21

A backlog worse than 9/11

The unprecedented shutdown of UK airspace is finally drawing to close this evening as authorities announce the resumption of flights, albeit with some limitations. Restrictions or total flight bans remain in place across more than a dozen nations. The shutdown is a result of volcanic ash from an eruption in Iceland spreading across the UK and parts of Northern Europe.

The ash is considered a danger to modern jet engines. More than 90 incidents over the last two decades have found that a jet engine's high operating temperatures can turn ash into molten glass, crippling the engine. Ironically, the prevailing winds currently blowing ash across the UK are also bringing wonderfully clear skies and sunshine. However they’re forecast to change direction this weekend, finally clearing the local sky of the uncertain danger.

I must admit that I’ve been looking at the sky every day and have to say I’ve yet to see any noticeable change in its colour. However, continuing test flights and scientific monitoring report unpredictable variations in the concentration of ash over the UK. Authorities have consistently erred on the side of caution, banning commercial flights in and out of most UK airports for six day. Here and across Europe the disruption to modern life continues to grow. Each day brings headlines with more and more mind-numbing statistics; more than 95,000 flights have been cancelled since last Thursday and airline losses across Europe exceed £650 million.

An estimated 400,000 Britons are stranded overseas, while another 40,000 Americans are grounded in the UK. Replicate this experience across a dozen European nations and you start to gain a sense of the scale of disruption. I've seen reports that 6.8 million people are affected worldwide. Some passengers are being told that once the airspace is opened it could be ten days before they can fly. In response, British authorities are sending 100 coaches to Madrid and more to other destinations in an attempt to repatriate nationals stranded across Europe.

Within my own company we have two Americans stranded in London; London-based employees stuck in Singapore and Turkey; and a Danish employee stuck in Paris. Other staff have shared stories of nightmare 30-hour coach and ferry journeys as they struggled home from ski vacations in Europe.

Stranded passengers aren’t only victims of the flight ban. The role of air freight in modern life is also coming to the fore. A shortage of parts has forced car-makers in Germany and Japan to temporarily halt production. Blocked shipments of goods are reportedly stacking up in China, while South Korea is stuck with hundreds of thousands of mobile phones. Exporters of fresh flowers and vegetables in Africa are throwing away tonnes of rotting stock.

I even read a story today of a salmon farm in New Zealand reporting record orders. Apparently fish wholesalers and restaurants in Asia and America have turned to alternative suppliers while access to Scottish fish stocks remains cut off. Flower growers report similar trends. It’s hard to imagine that a volcano in Iceland is generating a mini-export boom in New Zealand.

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