Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Lesson We Need to Learn

There was an amusing post at The Volcanism Blog a few days ago, listing some of the disruptions "in addition to grounding European aviation for days on end and exhausting headline-writers’ supplies of volcano puns."
The UK General Election … betting on 2010 temperatures … Southern California music festival … UK schoolgirls’ geography field trip … the Norwegian Government (iPad to the rescue) … touring wrestlers … Boston Marathon runners … the London Book Fair … health of pets … football, ice hockey and running … Premier League referees … the gilded progresses of celebs and pop stars … John Cleese’s trip home … football, cycling and running … Polish state funeral … transport of wounded soldiers … Dubai luxury hotel opening … Morocco golf tournaments … exams, exotic foods and surgery … yet more celebs (Hollywood ‘paralized’, no less) …
That's just a third of the list, and I haven't included the links he found for each item. Now most of the disruptions listed in that post resulted from the grounding, but nevertheless, the estimated economic impact of 2.5 billion Euros seems more and more credible, and it may go yet higher.

As I and others have noted before, the airline companies have been quick to cry "foul," and start demanding compensation for their losses. It does seem to me, though, that over the last couple of days, they've been less vocal. There was a very interesting piece in Der Spiegel yesterday delving further into the regulatory structures- or lack thereof- that necessitated the grounding, and perhaps prolonged it further than was strictly necessary.
The reality, however, looks different: Airlines and primarily the aviation industry are responsible for a poorly prepared warning system that went on autopilot during the crisis.

There is a global network of nine volcanic ash observatories under the direction of the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO). The early warning center located in London sounded the alarm on Wednesday the week before last. A cloud of ash from Iceland was rapidly moving towards the continent. The result: Europe's airspace was shut down.

But it was unclear how to proceed after that. "The system very effectively ensures that airspace with clouds of ash is closed," says Werner Knorr, head of flight operations at Lufthansa, "but it doesn't say how air traffic should resume once the cloud has dispersed."
The industry didn't want to put the time, effort and resources into figuring out a decent set of safety limits for ash. Then when there was a major ash fall, there were no firm, pre-agreed upon numbers to say when it was safe to fly again. This is a lesson that we seem to be doomed to learn forget over and over and over with respect to natural disasters: it's not cheap to prepare for them, even when they are inevitable, and predictable or forecastable. But it's many times more expensive to deal with them if you haven't bothered to prepare.

At least in this case, the cost is monetary alone. No one died.

No comments: