Living with one foot on two continents, I’ve crossed the Atlantic so many times I thought I had encountered every obstacle that exists from the fallout of delayed, detoured, and cancelled flights. I’ve flown through electrical storms, landed in snowstorms and endured turbulence caused by every kind of weather condition, but I’ve never been grounded due to volcanic ash. When Iceland’s Eyjjafjallajokul Volcano erupted, spewing ash into the stratosphere, European governments not only grounded planes, but also closed airspace.
Flying these days is not for the weak-hearted. When northerly winds blew a 4-mile high black horizon of volcanic ash across Europe, 17,000 flights were cancelled daily in the past four days leaving roughly 6 million plus passengers stranded.That is almost the entire population of Switzerland or all the residents of Chicago and Houston put together.
The cloud cover, which caused shutdowns in N. Europe bringing Europe’s largest airport, Heathrow, to a standstill for days, has spread as far south as Italy and Spain and east to Russia and Turkey. Within 48hours over 90% of French airports ground to a halt and its southern most terminals closed today.
A triple whammy hit France. This weekend marks the end of a spring break for one zone of France and the beginning for another zone, leaving millions of families stranded on route to or from somewhere. On top of which workers of the SNCF, French rail system, notorious for staging protests, have been on strikes for the past 11 days.
Now almost all airways over Europe are affected and all airports across Europe are closed, which wreaks havoc far beyond the airline industry.
“I’ve worked at Geneva Airport for 43 years, “ Francois said. “And never seen anything like it. Not only are passengers stuck, but we have nowhere else to store cargo while we wait for trucks to pick up perishable products.”
Chancellor Merkel flew from Washington to Portugal to Italy then drove back to Germany. She is lucky; a chauffeur is driving her home. The everyday citizen is stuck sleeping in airports, waiting for information, and fighting for tickets on Euro Star, ferry boats, and buses.
Right now no one, not even the experts, can predict when the cloud will dissipate or where it will travel next, perhaps, gradually blowing around the world. Air France, Lufthansa and KLM Airlines have begun test flights to determine the impact volcanic ash can have on plane safety.
Travelers will not only worry about terrorist threats,seasonal storms, bird migration, pilot errors, mechanical failures, and air traffic controller mistakes, we will now wonder when the next volcano might erupt.
My mom said it best, “We humans think we are so smart, but Mother Nature trumped us all!”
While stranded passengers wait and pray for the big black cloud to disappear, I hope that big bad volcano goes back to sleep, so my college kids and their globetrotting grandparents can fly over in May.