Volcanic Ash Plume across the North Atlantic, 2010

Volcanic Ash Plume across the North Atlantic 2010

Source: NASA’s Earth Observatory. Image acquired April 15, 2010.

In April 2010, a volcanic eruption in Iceland released a large volume of ashes that spread toward Western Europe due to dominant wind patterns (see the above photo). Volcanic ash is composed of tiny jagged particles of rock, mostly silicates, which are highly abrasive. If an airplane flies through such an ash cloud, engine failure could result. The problem was compounded by the fact that an aircraft weather radar cannot detect volcanic ash and that the ashes drifted at altitudes from 20,000 to 36,000 feet, which corresponds to the cruising altitude of most commercial jets.

Therefore, on Thursday, April 15, aviation authorities started to shut down airspaces and airports as a precautionary measure. The outcome was the largest natural disruption of air travel in history, with the closing of the majority of European airports, including mega hubs such as London, Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam. The only exceptions were airports in the southern part of Europe, such as in Spain, Greece, and Southern Italy. The plume also crossed the main great circle transatlantic air routes, closing many of them. Additionally, the whole global air transport system was disrupted due to canceled flights. This disruption was unique by its regionalism and only directly impacted one specific mode, but with substantial indirect impacts on other modes, mainly rail. The only equivalent disruptions related to when the American airspace was shut down for three days after the events of September 11 2001, and the shutdown of global air travel in March 2020 at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The disruptions of the European airspace in April 2010 had various consequences on both the air passengers and freight markets:

  • Passenger market disruptions. The shutdown of most European airports impacted 29% of the global air market, which was equivalent to 1.2 million passengers per day. About 100,000 flights were canceled, costing the industry $1.7 billion. This involved stranded passengers unable to find an alternative to get back home, canceled business meetings and conferences, and a drop in tourism for the world’s largest tourist market.
  • Freight market disruptions. Many supply chains of high-added value were disrupted, including electronics, car parts, and fresh produce. Parcel delivery, on which many businesses depend on their management and transactions, was also seriously disrupted. The impacts on value chains were particularly acute since air freight is geared towards supporting just-in-time strategies where inventory levels are kept low. The time lag between when the disruption occurs and when supply chains start to be impaired and shut down thus tends to be short. A salient example concerned the fresh flowers and produce industries in developing countries (Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East). Kenya, which exports about 1,000 tons of fresh flowers and produce per day by air transport, mostly to Europe, saw a complete stop of its production, a lot of it going to waste because of a lack of cold storage facilities and short shelf life.

On Monday, April 19, air traffic resumed as airports and airspaces gradually reopened. It took, however, several days for the global air transport market to return to normal operating conditions, mainly due to a backlog of passengers and freight shipments. Although this event was unique, such occurrences may likely happen again. It only took nine years after the events of September 11, 2001, to see a disruption of a similar scale taking place, although for completely different causes. Again, ten years later in 2020, the global air transport system was substantially disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.