Monday, April 19, 2010


As you probably have heard by now, there is a massive volcanic eruption occurring now in Iceland (and on the big island of Hawaii, Montserrat, and probably some other places, too). The plume of ash is extending so high, it is literally grounding planes in Europe:

While the EU may be considering easing the flying ban today, the eruption has caused all kinds of travel problems:
European Air-Travel Crisis Worsens With No End In Sight

LONDON -- An air-travel crisis caused by a spectacular volcanic cloud emanating from Iceland escalated sharply Saturday, with President Obama and other world leaders forced to cancel plans to attend the Polish president's funeral and millions of passengers from Washington to New Delhi left stranded by a bottleneck that could last for weeks.

Across Europe, commercial flight bans were in force in 24 countries, with some closing airports through Monday. But as majestic Eyjafjallajokull volcano continued an eruption that began Wednesday, the reality was dawning that air access to much of the region could be cut off for far longer, with potentially severe consequences for aviation-related industries and businesses dependent on air freight, such as those dealing in perishable goods.

Concerns have also been raised that a long period of closures and delays could affect the pace of European economic recovery when it is lagging behind that of the United States.

On Saturday, no end seemed in sight. Even when the eruption does stop, experts said, the high-altitude plumes of grit, which can cause jet engines to fail, could take at least two days to disperse.

"We're at the mercy of when the volcano dies down," said Graeme Leitch, of Britain's national weather agency. "It's up to the gods how long this goes on for."

Given the global links of international air travel, the problems in Europe were beginning to spread chaos worldwide. As far away as Singapore, the backup of international passengers was so bad that hotels rooms were becoming hard to find in the city-state.

Some airlines were offering little compensation, leaving cash-strapped travelers to turn a number of international airports into impromptu emergency shelters. Across Europe, meanwhile, authorities were weighing cancellations of championship soccer matches and heads of state were altering travel plans.

In addition to Obama, South Korean Prime Minister Chung Un-chan and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper abandoned plans to fly to Poland for the funeral Sunday of late President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, who were killed in an air crash April 10. All airspace in the country remained closed Saturday to flights above the cloud level of 20,000 feet.

In a statement released by the White House hours before his scheduled departure Saturday, Obama said: "Michelle and I continue to have the Polish people in our thoughts and prayers, and will support them in any way I can as they recover from this terrible tragedy. President Kaczynski was a patriot and close friend and ally of the United States, as were those who died alongside him, and the American people will never forget the lives they led."

U.S. troops injured in Iraq and Afghanistan were being flown directly to Andrews Air Force Base for treatment in the United States rather than at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the usual first stop for the wounded. Military planes unable to land in Germany because of the volcanic ash will refuel in midair or in Italy, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

Yes, Obama and the First Lady were unable to attend the Polish president's funeral, along with many other dignitaries. But there are bigger issues here:
Immediate Impact

In Europe, economists were assessing the longer-term impact of the historic flight disruptions, but winners and losers were emerging. Airlines and air-freight companies were the most affected, with the aviation industry facing losses estimated at $200 million a day. British Airways and other airlines said they are not insured against groundings by volcanic clouds.

Rail lines were seeing booming business, however, with many adding trains and operating at standing-room-only capacity. Auto rental agencies in Paris were running out of cars, and some taxi companies were scoring enormous cross-national fares.

"We have just arrived home after a 2,000 euro ($2,700) taxi ride from Courchevel in the French Alps," Michael Gore of Redditch, England, wrote on the BBC blog about the disruptions. "It was a tough decision to outlay the extra cash, which cannot be recovered from insurance, but . . . we are just relieved to be home having a nice cuppa."

Hotels were also cleaning up. Although many are seeing cancellations by guests who never arrived, in most cases those losses have been more than made up for by a captive market of travelers with no place to go.

Dora Paissiou, 36, said the hotel she owns in Vouliagmeni, a seaside resort town near Athens International Airport, has had a "full house" since the ash plume wafted over Europe. She described fielding calls from airlines with stranded passengers: "They call us and say, 'How many rooms do you have tonight?' And if we say 20, they take 20."

A breakdown in air cargo shipments into the largest cities in Europe, including London, Paris and Berlin, left supermarkets warning of looming shortages of fresh produce. The groundings meant fruit from Africa and South America were rotting in crates in their countries of origin.

The scope of the flight restrictions surpassed any seen since World War II. European aviation authorities said Saturday that commercial flights had been grounded across northern and central Europe, including Austria, Belgium, Belarus, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, most of France and Germany, Hungary, Ireland, northern Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine and Britain. Only 5,000 of the region's 22,000 regularly scheduled commercial flights took off Saturday, with Sunday disruptions potentially worse.

Industry officials said that U.S. carriers have had to shuffle their fleets to replace planes stranded in Europe but that there have been no knock-on cancellations of U.S. domestic flights.

No doubt. I have a friend stranded in the Netherlands right now. He's not complaining TOO much, especially since he had the foresight to purchase travel insurance. But overall, this has been a nightmare. Things may be shifting some now, though:
Faintly Bright Spots

Once the skies clear, passengers trying to rebook -- from the United States in particular -- are likely to face long delays. As airlines have cut costs, they have also reduced capacity over the past two years, meaning there will be few spare seats when flights resume.

"Even if Heathrow opens tomorrow, it's probably going to be days before you get on a flight," said Steven Lott, spokesman for the North America branch of the International Air Transport Authority.

One bright spot appeared in Iceland, where Foreign Ministry officials noted somewhat decreased activity early Saturday at the bellowing volcano. But they said that the eruption pattern had not seemed to change much since Eyjafjallajokull blew Wednesday and that the duration of the eruption was anybody's guess.

Prevailing winds have left Iceland's one major airport, in Reykjavik, open for business. And Icelanders are deriving amusement from foreign broadcasters' mangled attempts at the mouthful that is Eyjafjallajokull (EY-ya-fyat-lah-YOH-kuht). On Friday, Savannah Guthrie, co-host of MSNBC's "Daily Rundown," asked a colleague to pronounce the name and then said: "It's like you took the alphabet, threw it up in the air and let the letters land where they were."

Others, meanwhile, were reveling in the groundings. For residents of the area around Heathrow airport, Europe's busiest, the empty skies offered a rare respite.

"It's been wonderful," said Monica Robb, 80, who on Saturday afternoon was sitting in her back garden under a clear, blue sky, enjoying a lunch of toast and fruit. "I can hear the bees humming." (Staff writer Peter Finn in Washington contributed to this report.)

It's a mixed bag on some levels, but economically, and environmentally, the extent of the impact will not be fully known for some time. Hopefully the planes will be taking to the skies soon, though safety is clearly the highest priority. We will see what the morrow brings with the volcano...

UPDATE - Carol Haka brought to my attention that Obama, since he couldn't fly out to Poland for the funeral, decided to play golf instead. So, while world leaders are gathering to pay their respects to the Polish president, killed in a tragic accident along with many other high ranking officials, our Dear Leader plays a round of golf. I am CERTAIN the Polish people truly buy that Obama is praying for them while he out on the links as they mourn their country's great loss. Sure. What a show of compassion, sympathy, sensitivity, and decorum from The One. Or at least that's how his minions will try and spin this for him. But no spin will take away the reality - that is simply insulting, no matter how you look at it. Good grief.

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