The volcano that choked a continent

How an eruption in Iceland resulted in the longest and most expensive flight delay in history

Charlie Gillis and Jonathon Gatehouse

Catherine Hickson knew this day was coming. Of the hundreds of thousands of people left stranded last week on foreign soil—hostages to an ash-spewing hell vent whose name only Icelanders could pronounce—the B.C. volcanologist might have been best equipped to rationalize her frustration. Back in the late 1980s, Hickson had helped spearhead efforts to create a warning system to keep jet aircraft from flying into the sort of engine-seizing ash cast up by Eyjafjallajökull, the low-lying volcano whose plume all but shut down North Atlantic air traffic. Then a young scientist working for the federal government, she’d been assigned the task following a near-miss incident involving a KLM Boeing 747, which had flown into an ash cloud over Alaska and lost all power before pilots were able to restart the engines. Ottawa wanted to reassure passengers that steps were being taken to avoid such crises in the future. So did other countries.

Twenty years later, the system was working all too well: Hickson found herself marooned in Rome among the numberless travellers watching departure boards across Europe turn red with cancellations, their travel plans dashed by the whims of nature and transport authorities who told them it was too dangerous to fly. Her flight home to Vancouver had been scratched because it connected through Frankfurt, an aviation super-hub shuttered because of the overhanging haze. Hickson, who works for a private geothermal energy company, acknowledged the irony of being grounded by the very regime she helped create. She seemed no more certain than anyone how long the interruption would last. But with her intimate knowledge of volcanic ash, and a good idea of what it does to jet engines, she was sure of one thing: “I wouldn’t want to get on a plane right now.”

Admirably prudent, but she seemed to be in the minority opinion. With close to 100,000 cancelled flights, as many as 750,000 stranded passengers, $1-billion-and-counting in estimated losses for the airline industry, and everything from flowers to fresh fruit in short supply across northern Europe, most people just wanted to get things moving again. Late on April 20, after six full days—the longest, most expensive flight delay in history (the closure of U.S. skies following the Sept. 11 attacks lasted just 72 hours)—the prayers of weary travellers appeared to be answered as airports in the U.K. and on the Continent abruptly reopened. But with the strong possibility of more eruptions to follow, the question was, for how long?

One thing is certain: the world now has a clear sense of just how dependent we have become on fast, cheap travel. In the course of a wild week, global leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Stephen Harper were forced to cancel plans to attend the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, killed along with 94 other dignitaries in an April 10 plane crash. Business executives, scrambling to return to North America, were plopping down non-refundable $500 deposits to get on the lengthy waiting list for the Queen Mary II’s six-day transatlantic crossing. Powerhouse soccer clubs like Liverpool and Barcelona were forced to resort to trains and buses to reach Continental matches, rather than their usual chartered jets. Paramount Pictures moved the world premiere of Iron Man 2 from London to Los Angeles. And the fifth annual, all-female “Jazarella” festival in Zagreb was flat-out cancelled.

Politicians claimed they were putting the public good first: “We want to be able to resume flights as soon as possible, but safety remains my paramount concern,” said British Transport Secretary Lord Andrew Adonis. But the airline industry was livid. In a canny PR blitz, Europe’s major carriers essentially forced open the skies by sending senior executives aloft on dozens of “test flights” over the weekend. All were uneventful and post-landing inspections found no damage to the aircraft, they reported. The stunt provided the lobby group representing the world’s passenger and cargo airlines with plentiful ammunition. “We are far enough into this crisis to express our dissatisfaction on how governments have managed it—no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership,” Giovanni Bisignani, the head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), told a Paris audience. While Europe’s airspace was shut down in a matter of hours after the April 14 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, he noted it took five full days just to organize a conference call between industry representatives and the dozens of responsible governments and transport agencies. The message was clear: too much bureaucracy, not enough common sense.

Simmering frustration from the hundreds of thousands of air passengers stranded abroad, or stuck at home with their vacation or business travel plans in limbo, piled more pressure on Europe’s governments. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown—in the midst of a closely fought election campaign—dispatched Royal Navy warships, and hundreds of buses, to Spain and France to pick up marooned tourists and military personnel. In Hong Kong, the French counsel pleaded with locals to open their hearts and homes to the affected. But for the most part, the assistance was token rather than concrete. In London, several hundred Canadians who appealed to the High Commission for assistance in getting back home received the cold shoulder. Current government policy only allows the repatriation of Canadians when their security and safety is in danger—a hard case to make for those stranded in Europe’s plush capitals.

The disruption couldn’t have come at a worse time for the airline industry, which was just beginning to recover from last year’s global economic downturn. While all those stranded fliers will eventually be re-booked, they will inevitably occupy seats that would have otherwise been sold to other customers during the busy spring travel season. And then there are the extra costs incurred by airlines’ beefed-up call-centre staff during the crisis or, in some cases, meals and hotel stays offered to stranded passengers. Airports and the many businesses—cafés, bookstores and lounges—that line their normally bustling concourses have also taken a substantial hit. It all translates into a collective loss of at least another $1 billion for the industry this year, according to IATA. That’s on top the $2.8 billion in losses that IATA had previously forecast for 2010. Executives like British Airways CEO Willie Walsh are already clamouring for government compensation.

As for Canadian air carriers, one analyst estimates the cost in lost sales to and from Europe at $4 million per day. Most of that—$3 million a day—was absorbed by Air Canada, the country’s largest airline, says Rob Kokonis, the president of Toronto-based airline consultancy AirTrav. He says Canadian revenue losses are on par with what other non-European carriers such as Qantas and Singapore Airlines have experienced. “But the big impact, of course, is on those airlines that are based in Europe, where it’s no-fly anywhere,” he says, adding that some smaller European carriers with weak balance sheets could be at risk of being pushed over the edge by the shutdown.

Steve Lott, IATA’s North American spokesman, says safety remains the industry’s number-one concern, but argues that prudence needs to be balanced with science. “Let’s look at reopening airspace based on fact, not theory,” he says. “These closures were based on forecasts and models, not on the concentration of ash, or the altitude of the clouds.” Current practices call for commercial aircraft to avoid volcanic ash at all costs—basically turning tail and running if they encounter a plume. But this crisis indicates that manufacturers, carriers and governments need to come up with more practical operating standards, determining concentrations and particle size above which planes can no longer safely fly, says Lott. “We have technology today where we can determine what levels are unsafe. It’s in all our economic interests to do so.”

Perhaps, but the industry itself was instrumental is setting up the volcano monitoring system it is currently railing against. After several high-profile ash-plane encounters in the 1980s—including a British Airways flight’s loss of all four engines over Indonesia in 1982, and the Alaska incident in 1989—an international conference of industry scientists, along with meteorologists, aircraft engineers and volcanologists like Hickson, agreed in 1991 to create a worldwide network of “volcanic-ash advisory centres” responsible for alerting airlines and national aviation authorities when ash clouds appear.

These nine offices—run by national weather services under the auspices of the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)—use satellite-based infrared scanners to produce maps showing the shape and movement of a cloud, once seismic monitoring tells them an eruption is taking place. The images are colour-coded to show the varying density of the haze, but until last week the concentrations didn’t much matter. “There is no quantification of ash content in our advisories,” explains Richard Hogue, the Environment Canada official who oversees Canada’s ash advisory centre in Montreal. “Even a small quantity can cause millions of dollars of damage to a jet engine. So the ICAO had told us, ‘Look, you just tell us where the ash cloud will be so aircraft can steer clear.’ ”

Certainly engine and aircraft makers see little margin for error. General Electric, which makes engines for both Boeing and Airbus planes, posted interviews on its website this week in which its engineers warn that volcanic ash should be “avoided altogether.” Even small amounts of the dust can melt into a glass-like substance that gathers on the turbine blades, collecting in tiny air holes that allow cooling in the engine, says Leslie McVey, a safety engineer with the firm. “It can cause the engine to stall, and possibly to flame out.”

Pilots were similarly skeptical, as there is no on-board system to date that would allow them to detect the presence of volcanic ash, much less its concentration. In many cases, a flight crew’s first indication of ash is an acrid smell that fills the cabin and cockpit as warm air is pumped in off the engines. Pilots may also hear the scratch of silica-heavy ash hitting their windscreens, by which time it could well be too late: engine components would already be overheating.

Small wonder, then, that the head of the European Cockpit Association (ECA), representing 40,000 pilots, was less bullish than the airlines on the idea that Europe might have so-called “safe flying corridors” within the ash-affected zone. “I don’t think there is a definitive answer to whether it is safe or not,” president Martin Chalk told the Guardian newspaper. “ECA is concerned that such far-reaching decisions would be taken under such enormous human, political and commercial pressures.”

Still, for all the bother, disruption and economic loss, the flight crisis could have been much worse. So far, the Iceland eruption has been relatively minor, producing just 2,700 tonnes of sulphur dioxide a day. (In comparison, when the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo exploded in 1991, it sent aloft 18 million tonnes of SO2, enough to reduce the amount of sunlight the earth received, cool the globe by 0.6° C for more than a year, and alter weather patterns.) Eyjafjallajökull is on the world’s radar—literally—only because it is covered by a glacier. The molten magma forcing its way up through the ice is producing vast amounts of steam, which has carried the ash far higher and further than an eruption of similar magnitude would in warmer climes.

The real surprise, say those who study volcanoes, is that this type of thing doesn’t happen more often. The Pacific “Ring of Fire” is dotted with dozens of ice-covered volcanoes from northern Japan to Alaska and all the way down to Patagonia. In Iceland alone, there are 33 different volcanoes that have blown since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago—a blink of an eye in geological terms. And all of them have the potential to be just as, if not more, troublesome to air travellers. “We’re talking about disruptions on a potentially global scale,” says Hugh Tuffen of the U.K.’s Lancaster University, a volcanologist who has done field work in Iceland for the past 12 years. What insights has he gleaned? “What we’ve learned is that you can’t really predict what Icelandic volcanoes will do. This could all end in a matter of days, or it could go on for years.” Tuffen’s fieldwork has mostly concentrated on the much larger, and more active Krafla volcano, 25 km away, but he’s already making plans to turn his attention to Eyjafjallajökull this summer. “I’ve always looked at it and thought, ‘That’s a nice one. I hope it blows up sometime,’ ” he says. Even an ash cloud has a silver lining.