The Icelandic volcanic eruption is still causing havoc in Europe with ripple effects elsewhere as people and planes are grounded for travel in or out of much of northern Europe. Pressure from the traveling public, air carriers and business is mounting to let passenger and cargo planes fly again. What’s changed? Not much. There’s about as much uncertainty as there was a week ago, just a lot more pushback. The recriminations are already starting: EU and national transport authorities “over reacted.” They should have … done what? At the same time airlines like Air France-KLM are conducting test flights to see if it’s safe to fly planes with the traveling public through dust laden air corridors, and if so, which ones. So it sounds as if neither the authorities nor the airlines know the baseline answer: how risky is it to fly under the current conditions? We know volcanic dust can shut down airplane engines and score windshields to make them virually opaque. That’s not theoretical. That has happened. Can it happen again to some planes under these conditions? And if so, which ones? No one seemed to know.
It’s a lousy situation. No doubt. I’m glad I’m not stranded somewhere or missing an important personal or business event. It’s hard to see, however, what the alternatives were or claim this is an “overreaction.” As an aviation expert on one of the TV networks commented, “It’s much better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, then in the air wishing you were on the ground.”
I’m also glad I’m not tasked with making this kind of decision. And it calls to mind the recent tempest in a teapot over whether public health authorities “overreacted” to the swine flu pandemic. In both cases authorities were hampered by a lack of equipment: a Crystal Ball. The best their critics could offer later weren’t made of crystal. They were brass.