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April 15, 2010

Icelandic Volcano Impacts Economy, Industry, Environment

by David Byrd

Millions of passengers have been stranded after a huge ash cloud spread from an Icelandic volcano toward Europe since Wednesday, April 14.  Volcanic ash presents a particular challenge not only to airline passengers, but also to the travel industry, and the countries affected by the plume.

Air traffic controllers in Europe canceled more than 16,000 flights Friday because of the huge plume of ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. The cloud drifted toward Europe and is predicted to cover as far north as northern Italy, Britain, the Scandinavian countries, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, and Switzerland.

The canceled flights are costing the airlines an estimated $200 million per day, and passengers are stranded at major airports including Frankfurt, London, and Rome.

Bill Miller is a Senior Vice President with CheapOair travel company, and he told VOA that the $200 million is a conservative estimate and the impact could be felt industry wide.

"Certainly at Heathrow British Airways has a very large presence, as do a lot of North-American based carriers.  And in Frankfurt you've got Lufthansa that has a massive operation there. Europe is unique in that they have a lot of low-cost carriers. You've got Easy Jet operating out of Luton airport in London.  Some other low-cost carriers throughout Europe. You know, there's like 30,000 flights a day in Europe and I believe about half of them have been canceled as of today," he said.

The ash cloud even trapped Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who was stuck in New York after his flight home was canceled.  Mr. Stoltenberg used his Apple iPad electronic device to run his government while he made his way home.  

The difficulty with volcanic ash is that it is more like small particles of glass rather than the ash left over from a fire.  The pumice and other minerals can severely damage aircraft engines, control surfaces and navigation equipment.  

Bill Burton is a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey based outside Washington.  He told VOA that volcanic ash is uniquely destructive to aircraft. "It's like sandblasting your aircraft if you fly in the middle of it.  So millions of tiny hard pieces are flying into your jet engine.  And they are abrading the engine and any forward facing surfaces including windshields. The silica in the ash can also melt and then re-solidify within the engine so you can actually coat  the parts of your jet engine.  And all of those things can be disastrous," he said.

In 1989, a KLM airlines 747 with 231 passengers aboard lost power to all four of its engines after flying through an ash cloud from the Redoubt Volcano in Alaska.  The plane plunged from 27,000 to 13,000 feet before the pilots were able to re-start the engines and finish the flight to Anchorage Alaska.

And volcanic ash also can be toxic to humans, animals and plant life - not only from inhaling the particulates, but as Bill Burton said, from acid rain caused by the sulfur in the ash. "One of the main constituents of the (volcanic) gases is sulfur. And that comes out and oxidizes into sulfur dioxide and that combines with water to form sulfuric acid droplets. And those droplets can then be the source of acid rain. They also can block the sunlight to contribute to climate change, climate cooling in this case," he said.

The Volcanic Ash Advisory Center in London says that the high atmospheric pressure over the Atlantic is dictating that the wind strengths and the cloud will stay in northern Europe.  However, should the pressure change, the cloud could move more toward the Mediterranean.

Bill Miller of CheapOair says that many airlines are keeping travelers informed.  But he said travelers need to be patient. "It's a volcano, so nobody can really accurately predict what is going to happen. How long it is going to take.  There are some airports that are already shut down all the way through Monday (April, 19).  So I think the traveling public needs to make sure that they are aware of what communications channels to stay tuned into," he said.

Miller told VOA that some insurers are covering the tickets for canceled flights.   And while airlines are losing millions of dollars to lost tickets, Miller said they are also not spending money for fuel, flight crews, and other expenses.  While that is small comfort for stranded travelers, for now, there is nothing to do but wait.