Expect the unexpected” is a terrible cliche, but given the wars, natural disasters and financial crises of late, it could be considered standard procedure for our times. While a volcanic eruption was to be expected — at some point or another as volcanologists frequently warn — Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull’s burst of ashy activity on April 15 caught everyone with their pants down. Military powers had developed no secret weapons able to stop it and all the ’enhanced’ airport security measures and full body X-ray scanners could do nothing to screen the threat.
As the ash cloud’s creeping tendrils closed one major Northern European airport after another, it became starkly obvious how easily aviation — the predominant means of international travel — could have its wings clipped. One day of inactivity might have been tolerable, but five was catastrophic. The impact of the volcanic eruption was staggering: 29 percent of global aviation was grounded, 1.2 million passengers were affected, airlines lost some $1.7 billion in revenue and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said it may take up to three years for airlines to recover.
The volcanic eruption also exposed supply chain vulnerabilities, such as Gulf supermarket chain Lulu saying they were running out of fresh produce, usually flown in from Europe. Personally, I was scheduled to be back in Beirut April 16, returning from Tokyo via Paris’ Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport. Instead, after the 14-hour flight from Japan, I was diverted to Lyons in Southern France, where passengers were herded onto a bus for a further seven hours on the autoroute to Paris to spend the rest of the day lining up for assistance in CDG. After that, we waited in limbo, unsure whether tomorrow the ash cloud would clear to allow for take-off.
Yet, where one pillar of the globalized world fell, another, telecommunications, stood tall to save the day. On the second day stuck in Paris, Air France became “unwilling” to provide another night’s accommodation. I put out the word, via my Facebook status, that I was stuck in Paris and needed a place to crash until April 20, my re-scheduled departure; within an hour I received an SMS message on my mobile offering me a bed. One clear lesson for individual contingency planning is that access to cash and telecommunications is essential; judging by reports and personal experience, airlines overwhelmingly failed to live up to their legal obligations to comprehensively assist passengers during the “volcano crisis.”
Many passengers, left to fend for themselves with their own funds, took to more old fashioned means of transportation — by land and sea – to complete their connection. In my case I pondered how to get from Paris to Beirut the fastest way possible: 40 hours by bus to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, another seven-hour bus to Istanbul, and from there a flight to Beirut. As fate would have it though, the ash cloud cleared just enough on the morning of my rescheduled flight to permit takeoff, before closing in again later in the day to silence the runways. Had the eruption continued — as some predicted it would — adaptation would have set in, with streams of people moving up and down Europe by any means possible.
Still, this would have been far less tragic than the last big Icelandic “volcano crisis” in 1783, when the eruption lasted eight straight months, spread ash as far as Damascus, causing massive crop failure and livestock loss leading to tens of thousands of deaths.
With the spate of natural disasters to hit the world recently — from Hurricane Katrina in the United States, to the Asian tsunamis and the Haitian earthquake — one might have thought airlines and governments would have planned for a volcanic occurrence. Contingency plans, however, were not effectively in place to deal with widespread airport closures, governments dithered and insurance companies pulled the “Act of God” clause to escape claims. Few can predict when natural disasters will occur, but we know for certain that they do occur, and so it is prudent for governments, businesses and individuals to prepare.
Crises, by their nature, arrive unexpected — we should expect that.
PAUL COCHRANE is the Middle East correspondent for International News Services