As I’m sure everyone already knows, Europe is now in the fourth day of an extraordinary paralysis of air travel caused by the eruption of the EyjafjallajÃ¶kull volcano in Iceland. We haven’t seen anything like this since the grounding of (almost) all flights in America following 9/11. Hundreds of thousands of passengers have been affected, a large proportion left stranded by cancelled flights.
Contrary to early hopeful predictions, there is no immediate end in sight. At time of writing the front page of Newsroom leads: “TRAVEL CRISIS: New Ash Plume – The global air travel crisis is deepening with latest satellite imagery showing a new ash plume spreading southwards from Iceland as large swathes of European air space remains closed”. The Guardian is warning that “Volcanic ash cloud travel chaos could last all week”. The New York Times sums up:
Britain’s Met Office meteorological agency said that the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano was continuing as of early Sunday morning ‘and possibly intensifying,’ with the ash plume rising to 30,000 feet. …
While the closing of the airways has already laid waste to the immediate plans and business of industry, the arts and world leaders, the possibility that it could drag on for days, if not weeks, is raising concerns about the longer term consequences for public health, military operations and the world economy.
The disaster is estimated to be costing airlines $200 million a day, but the economic damage will roll through to farms, retail establishments and nearly any other business that depends on air cargo shipments. Fresh produce will spoil, and supermarkets in Europe, used to year-round supplies, will begin to run out.
But unless flights are disrupted for weeks, threatening factories’ supply chains, economists do not think the crisis will significantly affect gross domestic product. ‘If it really drags on another week that could be really serious,’ said Peter Westaway, chief economist for Europe at the Nomura investment bank. The air travel shutdown could affect productivity, he said, if hundreds of thousands of people miss work or are not able to do business because they are stuck in limbo somewhere.
It is worth pondering the implications of the fact that the last time that EyjafjallajÃ¶kull erupted it was active for over a year (December 1821 to January 1823). What if the current event lasts for a similar time? What if world air traffic is disrupted or unreliable for a year or more?
Whatever the eventual duration of the event, the huge impact of the disruption so far creates an interesting opportunity. Passengers have already worked it out. There are alternatives to air travel:
Stena Line, the ferry company, said it carried 5,000 extra passengers to Ireland, and P&O cross-Channel ferries said they were fully booked until Monday. Every Eurostar train was full yesterday, carrying more than 46,000 passengers. Network Rail had cancelled some engineering works to allow train operators to run more services over the weekend, particularly on the east and west coast main lines and on routes to the channel ports.
In the medium term, air travel as currently conducted is doomed by peak oil. So now is the time to start building the capacity of the alternatives. Rail travel is much more fuel efficient (per passenger or unit of cargo) than air travel, and consequently also has (after initial infrastructure costs) a much lower carbon footprint: “Eurostar, the high-speed train service that connects London with Paris and Brussels, advertises a tenfold reduction in each traveler’s carbon footprint by comparison with an airplane trip over similar distances”. According to this academic study:
A comparison of the marginal values of particular burdens/emissions and their costs (externalities) … [has] shown that significant mitigation of the impacts and savings of costs could be achieved by substitution of air passenger transport by high-speed rail.
Now is the time for European leaders to turn the frustration of stranded air travellers into a constructive mood for change. The EyjafjallajÃ¶kull crisis is also the EyjafjallajÃ¶kull opportunity for rail. Now is the time for huge investment in rail infrastructure and other preparations for the end of the commercial aeroplane. Now, before peak oil makes the current disruptions look like a picnic in the park.