Volcano Decides to Halt European Flights Since Nobody is Striking This Week


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.

Iceland Volcano Eruption

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.

[Original Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kimon/ / CC BY-SA 2.0 and http://www.flickr.com/photos/cdelriccio/ / CC BY-SA 2.0]

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46 comments on “Volcano Decides to Halt European Flights Since Nobody is Striking This Week

  1. I’ve been amazed (in the UK) by how responsible our press has been on this one – they’ve just quietly got on with it in a calm and reasonable fashion. Maybe they’re all too busy on the election reporting (“Planes grounded by ash as leaders clash” was The Sun’s way of linking the two). Gives them all an excuse to dig out the “All of our engines have failed” stories for a new generation…

    1. Responsible, apart from taking an age to even consider the local inhabitants welfare who might be affected by the eruption – our right to fly comes first.

  2. Here is a tip for you and your readers Cranky. Check out the book Emergency: Crisis in the Cockpit by Stanley Stewart. It covers the Pan Am incident, and a dozen others in fascinating detail. You won’t be able to put it down. Extra bonus points for attracting stares if you read it while you are in the air!

  3. At least people in Europe can still use trains and ferrys to get around if they really need to.

    Doesn’t this effect transatlantic flights to southern europe also. Since so many carriers use two engine aircraft, just how far south can they fly to still comply with ETOPS and avoid the ash?

  4. You had me at the headline. I don’t travel anywhere near as much as I used to, so technically there’s no good reason I should be following your blog. Must be all the great writing and great information. Thanks!

    Oh, and this volcano had better get its act in order before I have to fly through Europe this summer.

  5. CF
    Volcanic ash is one of the nastiest things I have ever encountered. I transferred to PDX with Delta in May 1980, and got into town the weekend that Mt. St. Helens blew up. Although the ash from the huge eruption didn’t affect PDX, later ones did. The inside of the cab of our jet bridge had ash in all the little crevices and slits, and even 10 years later, you could feel the grit of the ash inside the cab.

  6. “All London airports were shut down yesterday…”

    To be precise, all airspace over the UK was closed so it affected more than just London. There is more to the UK than just the capital.

  7. Do you have a lot of CC clients stuck? Surely this is the “perfect storm” for CC, certainly time to prove your value?

    1. Yep, I’ve been up since about 230a this morning with intermittent naps. The problem with a large scale disaster like this is that there really are just about no options. There’s room to get to Amman from New York today, if anyone wants to go that way. It kills me that Ethiopian has room on its Washington-Rome-Addis Ababa flight but can’t take local passengers to Rome. Most airlines have nothing until Sunday at the earliest, and that assume that the existing flights get up and running before then.

      My assumption is that once the airspace reopens, airlines will start adding extra flights and larger planes to help people get over there. So at this point, it’s an issue of just waiting. (Or trying to blow really hard so the ash moves out.)

  8. As someone who has planes taking off from LHR passing over my house every day, it is so weird to see the skies so empty. It is oddly quiet. I do fear though what impact this will have on the airlines here in the UK, especially if the volcano keeps active for a significant length of time, and the winds keep coming from the north, which is entirely possible. BA’s share price fell by over 3 percent today. Ryanair just announced that it is canceling all flights until next Monday.

    1. Know how you feel. My crew and I got stuck in Boston on 9/11. Company put crews in a hotel north of Logan on the shore. We went walking along the shore opposite the airport on day. Could hear the waves lapping against the rocks, the seagulls calling and even smelled the salt air (no Jet A fumes).

  9. Reactions to this sentence: “The funny thing here is that Icelandic air traffic is largely unaffected because the winds are blowing the ash away. ”

    Too bad the Chunnel had to stop at the UK.

    Would be great if there was any business to be done in Iceland.

    Wont the island tip over if too many people stop here?

  10. Interesting how this will hurt the wallets of the airlines, but help the wallets of many other businesses with people needing hotels, food, taking trains and ferrys where they can, car rentals, and so on down the list of businesses and their suppliers.

  11. To bad airplanes can hover. All the jets stranded in North America could flt to the rear edge of the ash cloud and turn around an hover. All that hot exhaust would blow the ash farther along at a faster pace. Hmmmm…..could send our elected officials in Washington there in hot air balloons and their hot exhaust could do the same thing……lol

  12. This is a fascinating story. If the eruptions were to continue for months, we could be cut off from northern Europe for a while. It’s amazing this hasn’t happened before in the history of transatlantic air travel (and volcanoes).

  13. I was affected as I was due to fly Newark – Amsterdam – Leeds yesterday/this morning. It got cancelled at 2:30 yesterday.

    I spend 8 hours on the phone as I have a very complicated itinerary as I was due to continue from Manchester on Saturday (tomorrow) to Valencia, Spain via Paris. All of that was cancelled too.

    And… I am traveling with my almost 9-year-old son who lives in England so I was delivering him back home there, and then continuing on to Valencia. Now, with the help of Heather at Delta’s office on 140 E 45th Street NYC, I am flying Satruday directly to Valencia, and my wife and son are following a day later via Milan. We should all be reunited in Valencia on Monday, so I can conduct my business and then on Wednesday fly Valencia – Paris – Manchester to deliver my son home in the UK. I will then fly Manchester – Amsterdam – JFK on Thursday.

    Still with me? :-) Yes it is complicated. But while in the Delta office, I felt for the Professor from Germany who was stranded with 26 students… Good luck getting such a large group back to Frankfurt. The agents were telling most people to not expect to go anywhere until Wednesday/Thursday of next week. KLM and Delta were bringing in 747’s on some of the flights to be able to send more people in one go. Also, apparently Air France were going to operate limited flights into Paris from tonight.

    Most flights to North West Europe will start to trickle back into operation over the next few days. And South Europe remains (as yet) un-affected.

    Wish me luck tomorrow…

    PS Best joke, that many will have seen already: Hey Iceland, we said “send cash, not ash!”

  14. I guess your Dispatcher guest would have some interesting insight as to what goes on in situations like this. I’m sure they earn their money.

    The airlines, well, at least UA, never seem to disappoint me about the useless ness of their website info on flight status. Looking at the afternoon flank of UA European flights due into IAD today (Fri. the 16th), I see the LHR, BRU, AMS, and FRA flights all cancelled.

    The GVA flight (975) is shown as having left GVA and scheduled to arrive at IAD pretty much on time. Good for UA. But the ZRH flight (937)is shown as having left about a half hour late, but will arrive 2 hours late… “…schedule change due to late arriving aircraft.” Interesting how that reason would make much sense for the late arrival, given when the flight departed, but that’s a pretty typical response for UA. Whatever!

    The MUC flight is running about an hour late… “…due to air traffic control.” Oh?

    And the Rome flight, left about a half hour late, but will arrive 8 minutes early. Reason for the early arrival: “…schedule change due to cabin service.” Are we speaking Chinese or what?

    No mention ever about something called “a volcano” in “Flight Status.” Maybe that will find its way in the 2013 list of “delay” reasons, but not just yet!

  15. Although I like the idea of selling tickets on a 20,000ft glide down, there are some risks (duh). The ash tends to melt into glass-like substance around the fuel nozzles. Then it solidifies (cools), blocking fuel. It’s not a slam-dunk that you can re-start engines once you’re below the ash cloud.

  16. So doesn’t Open Skies give the airlines a good work around in this instance? Can’t they just launch craploads of flights to Rome or somewhere outside of the plume then tell people to take trains? This seems like a reasonable alternative.

    1. Doesn’t work if you’re already *in* the plume.

      Also, what about the capacity of that other airport? And what about the existing scheduled flights? It would cause almost as much chaos as the volcano has.

      1. I’m sure there is some flexibility with the capacity of the other airports. And Airlines have to have some planes not in the US at the moment. I think the real thing that’d kill it would be the deadhead back to the states — asking bunches of people to find their way on a plane to Rome etc isn’t exactly something that’ll happen.

  17. I’d really be interested in seeing what the major carriers are planning/doing to mitigate a continual issue once the ash cloud lifts. Are they moving larger planes into position (UA and DL have some 747s I’m sure)? Are there plans for more planes to clear the backlog? What contingency plans might be in motion to get travelers at least to their destination continent?

    1. I actually spoke with Delta about this today. They’re looking to use larger planes or add extra sections when they have a better idea of how many people need to travel. They won’t be able to figure that out until the cloud moves on.

  18. Hi Cranky,
    Have you considered putting up more than one post a day, the way most active bloggers do? There are SO many things going on in the airline world now (mergers, strikes, rumors of mergers, random weirdness) that I wonder why you limit yourself to one post a day?

    1. I’m not trying to cover everything but rather just cover fewer things very well. I could potentially look at doing more if people were paying for this, but they aren’t so I can’t devote enough time to do more than a post a day.

  19. Just got off the island after a two day trek. Was scheduled in and out of London on Thursday and welcomed in London by the pilot´s announcement of “Welcome to London. You will be here for a while.” After hanging out at LHR Fri morning and talking to a bored out agent (16hr emergency shift, but no customers) I went on a train to Hull and got one of the last cabins on the Zeebrugge sailing – Eurostar and Dover-Calais were hopelessly overbooked.

    Interestingly enough, it makes you reconsider the way of travel. On the ferry, I had my own cabin with a nice bed and shower, plenty of good food and multiple bars to check out – for maybe a 1/40 of the price for a similarly long flight in F or a suite. If now it could only go 40 times as fast.. Hopefully not forced to use this again for business, but it may be a good way for leisure.

    Cranky, so in case you need to get people off the island – the Hull-Zeebrugge and Hull – Rotterdam ferries seem less overrun than the Dover-Calais ships, and connections from there on to the rest of Europe (of which hopefully some part will stay ash-free) seemed pretty good today.

    In any case, I hope you can find your customers a good way through this, and for the sake of the whole industry I hope this will be all over soon!

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I have a client who was going to make it through Iceland to Glasgow but now he’s stuck there. I’ve even started looking at the four day ferry from Iceland to Denmark. Sheesh.

      1. Cranky – if you have clients who are in Europe and who need your advice, you might want to buy a copy of the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. Costs 14 pounds in the UK – so about 20 or 25 dollars in the USA. Lists every train and ferry of any significance in Europe with plenty of schematic maps. Published every month, but there are only minimal changes between editions. It even lists the Iceland-Denmark ferry !

  20. I was on a holiday in Sweden and got stranded in the airport for hours. Still, work has to continue so i started working from my laptop –
    I wonder what online tools can help in this situation? I use http://www.verishow.com/ , really useful site for online collaboration.

  21. Is the volcano some thing that would have been covered my most travel insurance polices? If so what kind of help would travelers could expect to receive? I’ve personally purchased 3rd party travel insurance when I go overseas, my credit card (Citi/AA) automatically tacks on a some sort of travel protection plan for a small fee when ever I buy airline tickets with it. And I’ve seen airlines offer protection plans at the time of purchase.

  22. What a sight this morning at LAX, coming off the 105 into the Sepulveda tunnel: parked along the southern perimeter were a British Airways 747, a KLM 747, a Lufthansa 747, another widebody I didn’t quite identify, and two Air Tahiti Nui planes. I wonder if they could possibly utilize those birds for some other flying…

  23. the long term costs regarding actually flying in the vicinity of ash,won’t be readily relised until the engines are overhauled, probably after a premature removal for perf. degradation,stalls(from hp comp erosion)

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