Friday, April 23, 2010

A few words about ash.

I have been silent recently, in part trying to get some work done, and in part mystified about the daily goings-on in the travel business. It seems to have become an industry of crises; earthquakes, currency movements, massive economic disruptions and now ash.

The Icelandic volcano that erupted last week, and as I type lies only a few hundred miles north of the plane that I am riding on, should have come as a surprise to no one. Not, I hasten to add, that the world should have been on tenterhooks waiting for the eruption, but that the incident should not have left so many flat-footed.

It was always going to happen, just as it will happen again; when, of course, we don’t know. And as a society, we seem to have lost the ability to measure things slowly. Everything moves fast; people, data, ideas, satisfaction and even lifetimes. We know how to hurry, multi-task and achieve extraordinary feats of multi-tasking.

We just don’t do slow well. We can measure a nano-second, and get irritated if a complex answer to a strident email has not come back to us within an hour; we don’t have a clue how to measure geologic time. And so, when the north Atlantic was hit by a geologic event, we reacted as cluelessly as we would face a tyrannosaurus rex in our local supermarket.

Airlines stopped, in the now common name of Safety, and so it should have been; it seemed, however, that European governments and air traffic control experts became paralysed. What, exactly, were they waiting for? As it turned out, they were waiting for Willie Walsh, the CEO of British Airways to order several aircraft stranded overseas to return home. They left the US, Africa and Asia aimed at London knowing that a solution would have to be found while they were airborne.

The interesting thing to me is that the real arbiters of safety are the insurance companies, and there would be no way that they would have allowed these flights if they thought that there was any real danger to the aircraft and their passengers. Walsh knew that they would, at the worst case, land in Spain and travel onward by battleship. He also knew that in all probability, the appropriate authorities would see sense and allow flights to resume. Which they have, and it is why I am flying to London today and not sitting at home, watching an ever changing map of the supposed volcanic ash coverage.

It also showed us how close to the edge so many of us live; how we take for granted that we can lie on an Asian beach on Sunday morning, fly home that evening and report for work on the next morning; how closely linked, in the name of efficiency, industrial supply lines have become, and how many of us fly thousands of miles away from home with absolutely no financial back-up.

Within a week or so, most of us will have forgotten about the dislocation as our lives return to normal; and yet again, we will forget about the volcanic nature of Iceland and the probability of another, even larger, blast. As their Prime Minister said last week, it is not a matter of if, but a matter of when.

This thought will not stop me travelling back and forth to Europe, but it certainly makes me hope that we will not see a repeat of the Deer in the Headlights reaction that we have seen last week.