It’s a rare week when there isn’t a strike at a European airline, but this appears to be one of them. Unhappy with this news, a big, mean volcano in Iceland called Eyjafjallajokull (strangely enough, pronounced simply as “Billy”) decided to start erupting. Thanks to the prevailing winds, many European airports are shut down until the ash cloud passes. Ugh.
Ash, in case you didn’t know, is like kryptonite for airplanes. No, it has nothing to do with reduced visibility as you might expect. That type of flying happens all the time. The problem is that the ash roughs up airplanes and has an unfortunate side effect of making engines stop running. So yes, it’s a good thing that air traffic has come to a halt. I’m just waiting to see how some lazy journalist finds a way to pin this on the airlines.
All London airports were shut down yesterday as were those up in Scandinavia. Airports on the continent starting shutting down a little later on as the ash cloud continued to move toward the southeast. The funny thing here is that Icelandic air traffic is largely unaffected because the winds are blowing the ash away.
So what exactly happens when an airplane flies into ash? It’s not good. There have been two very high profile incidents, both in the ’80s before they apparently realized that they should avoid flying into ash clouds at all costs.
The first was on British Airways in 1982. A 747 was on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Perth when it flew through a cloud of ash at 37,000 feet. The engines apparently weren’t so happy with that so they all shut down and the plane became a glider. Once they got below the ash, they were able to get the engines restarted, though not before they reached 13,000 feet. Yeah, it was a long and scary glide down. They landed safely in Jakarta.
The second was on KLM’s ever-popular (or not) Amsterdam to Anchorage route. They thought they were flying into a normal cloud at 25,000 feet, but, um, it was ash. The engines all quit and they started heading down. The first engines came back at 13,000 feet and they again landed safely. In both cases, there was some serious damage to the airplane.
Come to think of it, maybe this is the airlines’ fault. They wouldn’t have to cancel all these flights if they were just willing to fly at 13,000 feet all the way around, right? Or they could just climb to cruising altitude and sell it as a weightless adventure when they plunge 20,000 feet before getting the engines restarted. I think they might be missing out here.
Really, this is frustrating for everyone. The airlines are losing a ton of money while passengers get stuck. And the worst part? You can’t even see the ash cloud from the ground, so people are going to have a tougher time understanding why their flight is grounded. On top of that, they don’t know when the thing is going to move on. Sheesh.
If you’re flying to or from Europe this weekend, bring a lot of patience. It’s going to be a tough one.