Volcanic Ash?

In May I’m part of a travel course to some of my favorite world cities: Vienna, Munich and Berlin.   Yet even as we send payments for train tickets, air fare, and prepay for rooms in the hostels, the headlines scream about how travel to and throughout Europe is threatened by…a volcano.   I’ve planned and executed six travel courses before — five to Italy, one to Germany.   Some took place during January, when I had real concerns about snow storms preventing us from reaching Boston for the flight.  I never thought we’d need to be concerned about a volcano!

The volcano, located near Iceland, is called Eyjafjallajokull and has been erupting on and off since March.   Due to winds and the height of the ash most flights from Europe to the US and within Europe were canceled last weekend.  British Airways estimates loses at $25 – $30 million a day, with some believing the airline industry as a whole is losing $200 million a day.   Due to winds there have been some openings, and tomorrow a wind shift might clear some of the major airports which have been closed (like Charles De Gaulle in Paris, and the London airports), but no one knows how long the erruption will last, and how much ash will yet be spewed into the atmosphere.   Some ash has hit the east coast of North America, canceling even some far eastern Canadian domestic flights.

The US estimates there are 40,000 US citizens stranded in Great Britain alone, but all over Europe the impact has been felt.  President Obama even had to cancel his planned attendance at the funeral for the Polish President who was killed in a plane crash caused by a more usual suspect: horrible fog.   Most world leaders ended up missing that funeral, though the Russian President made it — which was important symbolically.

The Financial Times reports that the danger has been exaggerated by flawed computer models.   Test flights by European airlines through areas off limits to passenger travel have not shown damage to engines, making many believe that the European authorities were too quick to make extensive travel bans.    Yet without clear knowledge of what is safe and not safe, officials tend towards caution.   What would be the response if they eased up travel and one or more planes crashed? As bad as missing a trip would be, I certainly don’t want to risk having the engines fail on the plane!

What is interesting about this is how nature — a volcano located in the north Atlantic — can cause so much havoc in our globalized world economy.   Airlines, already dealing with rising oil prices, run quite literally on a tight schedule.  It used to be that customer service meant it made sense to have more flight seats open than people flying in order to assure people would find a schedule suiting them.   Over the years increased competition and higher costs have led to models that try to assure that as many flights as possible are booked full.   That means fewer flights — and more headaches trying to help tens of thousands of passengers get to where they want to go once the skies actually clear.

Not only does this affect airlines and tourism, but also shipping.   Companies are used to the capacity to send things overnight to and from Europe, and while freight generally is sent by ship, important documents and urgently needed materials go by air.   Individual travelers are also being hurt, especially those who can ill afford an extra week or so in foreign parts.   They not only lose income from lost work, but have to pay for hotels and food.    If this continues, who knows the long term consequences.

Yet this kind of event also should bring some perspective.   When we do the travel courses, we tell students one thing: don’t get frustrated or angry when things go wrong.   Travel is always like that, a flight is canceled, a museum closed when you expect it to be open, a train is late, etc.  So many times I’ve been in airports and seen business people and tourists angry, shouting at airline workers because their plans have been thrown asunder by mechanical problems or nature.   That only increases the level of frustration, and doesn’t solve the problem.   Watching that, I’ve made a point to be as understanding and friendly as possible in all circumstances — something which came in handy during our last trip.

When things go wrong traveling, you just have to go with it.  Tell yourself you’ll have a story, realize it’s a unique experience, and recognize that in most cases the inconveniences and problems are small when looked at in perspective.   Find fun in the situation if possible, joke, and know that things will get better.    I think sometimes people react to the stress of plans going awry with the instinctive human response we had back when saber tooth tigers attacked — adrenaline, worry, anger!   It’s important to take a minute, get perspective, and recognize that all the complaining and anger in the world won’t change the situation.

As we tell students, if you are good at travel, you’ll likely be good at life.   That capacity to roll with the changes when things go awry is the best way to reduce or avoid stress, and to stay alert for new, unexpected opportunities.    Most of the time the things that drive people crazy are ridiculously unimportant, no matter what it seems like at the time.    This “ash event” is forcing more people to confront the fact that the world doesn’t always adhere to our plans and hopes — and that’s OK.   We make it work out anyway.

So next month if we’re at the airport in Boston and are informed that our British Airways flight to Vienna via London has been canceled due to volcanic ash we’ll just have to figure something out.  Still, I really am looking forward to a Melange with Sachertorte, and strolling the grounds of Schloss Schoenbrunn.

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