Airlines under a cloud, as eruptions continue

Petrified airlines losing £130m a day in the ash, while trains and ferries look to cash in.

Last Updated: 20 Jul 2011

European aircraft are still about as active as the ancient residents of Pompeii, as Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano continues to send out plumes of ash over the continent. The National Air Traffic Service (Nats) has grounded planes until at least 1am BST on Tuesday, although European airports and airlines are now asking for a reassessment of the restrictions.

While the TV and radio pundits struggle to be get to grips with Icelandic elocution, the air travel industry is beginning to get desperate. With a video conference between European transport ministers planned today, The Association of European Airlines (AEA) and Airports Council International (ACI) have together questioned the proportionality of the restrictions.

AEA secretary general Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus said: 'Verification flights undertaken by several of our airlines have revealed no irregularities at all.' A test flight from Heathrow by British Airways, carrying no less a personage than CEO Willie Walsh, has landed intact and with its tailfin artwork unabraded at Cardiff Airport. Walsh reckons the flying ban is costing BA £20m a day and wants compensation for the loss.

But while stocks of airfreighted fruit ‘n’ veg run low, and the smell of rotting fish and Colchester oysters hovers over Heathrow, cross-Channel trains and ferries are packed to the gunwhales. Operators were forced to deny profiteering over the weekend after prices mysteriously rose. It’s just supply and demand, they said.

At the time of writing a standard single ticket on Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord would set you back £154.50. An attempt to find out availability of the previous £69 return fare online now returns an erreur technique.

Car sharing websites are reporting brisk trade as stranded travellers attempt to get back to Blighty by alternative means, and the navy has been drafted in with HMS Ark Royal, HMS Ocean and HMS Albion set to weigh anchor today to pick up Britons stranded on the continent.

All of which leaves one big unanswered question – just how much of a risk does the ash cloud really pose to aircraft? The problem is that no-one really knows. While flying through a dense plume of ash is clearly bad news and can stop engines and damage airframes, the effects of ash at much lower densities is unknown.

So in the absence of much hard data, the precautionary principle applies. But the longer the disruption continues, the more pressure there will be for the authorities to adopt a slightly less risk-averse approach. After all, the Wright Brothers didn’t know what was going to happen when they wheeled out their biplane one morning in Dec 1903, either… 


In today's bulletin:

Goldman Sachs fraud case puts whole industry on trial
Airlines under a cloud, as eruptions continue
City fat cats take home a third of UK's wage bill
Public sector cost cutting calls for surgeons not butchers
Boss-napping back on the menu in France



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