For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost;
and for want of a horse the rider was lost;
being overtaken and slain by the enemy,
all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail.
The Way to Wealth (1758)
A volcano in Iceland with an absolutely unpronounceable name erupts and air travel in, about, and through Northern Europe is thrown into total, unmitigated chaos. The ash and smoke from the erupting Eyjafjallajokull volcano could, if sucked into modern commercial jet engines, shut them all down, leaving winged, painted steel and aluminum tubes and hundreds huddled inside in cramped seats at the cruel mercy of gravity. In London, more than a thousand miles away, thousands of flights were grounded with perhaps hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded for days that must have seemed endless for one trying to just get home. Strangely, it was all about the direction the wind blew.
Reykjavik’s International Airport, located just a couple of hours to the west of the erupting volcano, had no problems dispatching flights heading anywhere except to the areas in Europe where the smoke and ash was blown by the wind. Planes even flew right up to the erupting volcano, approaching from the northwest, as the wind blew hard to the southeast. Neal Karlinsky, a fearless ABC news reporter, flew over the erupting volcano, not once, but twice, during the last week, even landing for five minutes on the crater as it spewed, reporting that the wind blew so fiercely up there that he could not even hear the volcano in the throes of its eruptions. Now, that’s dedication to journalism!
The legendary Krakatoa, an island volcano in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, half a world away from Iceland in Indonesia, erupted so forcefully starting in May 1883, that it obliterated itself by August 1883, leaving only a tiny portion of the former island remaining above water. For the next year, average global temperatures dropped as much as 2.2 °F, with wild, unpredictable weather and out of whack global temperatures persisting until 1888. For years world skies were darkened – 1880’s observers dubbed it "equatorial smoke stream." These years-long global flows of smoke and ash after Krakatoa blew itself up actually were the beginning of early meteorologists’ figuring out what the Jet Stream was and how it worked. The vividly red-streaked skies in the background of the 1893 classic painting: The Scream, by Edvard Munch, are believed by some researchers today to show the effects of Krakatoa’s explosive eruptions on the skies over Norway – again, half a world away!
But, there was no such thing as jet powered aviation, or any passenger aviation, to be disrupted back in the 1880’s – that is, aside from balloon-borne observers used in the US Civil War in the first half of the 1860’s and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, where anti-aircraft artillery was first used by the Germans to shoot down French hot air balloons used as couriers during the siege of Paris before it fell on Jan. 28, 1871. Just imagine the disruption today if a Krakatoa-sized volcano were to blow itself to smithereens, grounding thousands and thousands of daily flights -perhaps for months, even years!
But, that’s only the beginning of the unraveling ramifications. Produce growers in Africa who supply Europe have watched their produce spoil waiting for the interrupted flights to recommence. ‘Just-in-Time’ inventory supply chains worldwide have been disrupted, idling freight forwarding from Asia to Europe. People en route through London to all points have been simply stuck there for a week or more (not that being stuck in London is so terrible, mind you). Even with resumption of some flights, nearly 100,000 backlogged flights with their passengers and freight now must all be moved around like millions of chess pieces. Equipment (the planes) and crews are not always located where you want them to be located when flights can resume – requiring further delay getting them all back to wherever they need to be to re-integrate into the complex, interlocked web of 21st Century international aviation.
And, the perennial question: who is going to pay for this mess? European rules are kinder to passengers than our own US requirements – air carriers have been forced to house and feed all of the stranded ones, some for a week or more. Crazy stories about taxi rides costing thousands of dollars and zig-zag train and bus trips back and forth and back again – to get wherever one must. Everything from final exams to honeymoons to job transfers to ruined vacations; it’s all happening at the same time. And the lawyers have not even gotten involved yet, let alone the insurers for air carriers, their freight, trip insurance and the whole spectrum of modern commerce – all are now scrambling to see what will now come of all this. We have not seen anything like this since the week of 9-11, when all American aviation (except for certain Saudi Royal Family members quietly whisked back home) was grounded.
And, last but surely not least, they say that the currently erupting Icelandic volcano has a much bigger companion nearby and, if that one erupts, worldwide aviation is really in big trouble – all just when we all thought that (formerly glamorous and even luxurious) air travel could not get any more inconvenient.