The Icelandic volcano: let’s have a reckoning
It is mad to blame one safety official for the six-day flight ban – it was actually a product of elite risk-aversion.
Is that it? After six days of a near-shutdown of the skies over northern Europe, the UK government announced that British airspace would reopen at 10pm on Tuesday night. Now that things are getting back to something like normal, it is time to learn some lessons from the whole mad affair. What does it say about contemporary society that it is grounded by a relatively small, distant volcano? The answer lies in a mixture of precaution, organisational cowardice and a negative attitude towards flying.
When flights were brought to a halt last Thursday, it appeared that the ash would be a temporary inconvenience with flights quickly resuming. However, over the subsequent 24 hours it became clear that the cloud could hang around for days, if not weeks. We were the victims, we were told, of a peculiar combination of volcanic activity and weather patterns. Flying, we were assured, was simply too risky. The proof was to be found in the startling experiences of a British Airways flight over Indonesia in 1982 and a KLM flight over Alaska in 1989. On both occasions, aeroplanes flew through clouds of volcanic ash; all four engines on each aeroplane stopped working and the pilots were forced to descend thousands of feet before being able to restart the engines.
For those involved, the experiences must have been terrifying. But there seems to have been too little effort to understand how the situation over the past few days may have been very different from those earlier incidents. For example, the KLM flight was a mere 150 miles from the volcano in question, Mount Redoubt, while London’s Heathrow airport is 1,200 miles from the volcano in the Eyjafjallajökull glacier. While neither the British Airways nor the KLM crew knew immediately what was going on, the cabin filled with the smell of sulphur and what appeared to be cigarette smoke. When the British Airways plane landed, the windscreen of the aircraft was so sandblasted, the pilots could not see out well enough to taxi the plane and it had to be towed off the runway. KLM, Lufthansa, Air France and British Airways reported nothing of that nature during the test flights last weekend.
This would suggest that the concentrations of ash particles in those earlier incidents were far higher than have been found over Europe in recent days. Yet even in those two most notable examples, the engines of the planes all restarted at lower altitudes and the planes were safely landed, even if it was touch-and-go for a while. So, in 2010, hundreds of millions of pounds have been lost to the travel industry, imports of perishable goods have been badly affected and as many as 150,000 Brits have been stranded abroad – all to avoid a scenario that has never cost a single life. As one writer noted, if we took a similar approach to driving, our motorways would be full of cars pootling along at 30 miles per hour.
Yet many commentators have ridiculed the idea that the restrictions might be questionable. Echoing the concerns of Europe’s big airlines, Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins quite sensibly suggested that this was an overblown panic and compared it to the scare around swine flu in 2009. However, his fellow Guardian writer Martin Rivers retorted that airlines could not be trusted to provide advice on safety. ‘If you want to know whether it’s safe to fly into an ash cloud, ask a scientist. Ask a volcanologist.’
Gathering the available evidence is certainly sensible, but this expert-worship is misplaced. Someone whose expertise is meteorology or volcanology may well be able to measure particle concentrations in the atmosphere and make some educated guesses about how those concentrations might change. But it is highly unlikely that the same expert can tell us anything definitive about whether those concentrations will damage a jet engine. Is it really mad, as Rivers and others seem to believe, to suggest that the airlines – whose reputations would be on the line, after all, if they got it wrong – might have some useful insights into whether flying is safe or not? Other commentators have offered what they seem to think is an inspired argument: if critics of this safety-first approach are so certain, they should take part in a test flight. The fact that airline bosses like BA’s Willie Walsh and KLM’s Peter Hartman did precisely that over the weekend seems to have passed such insightful wits by.
We also need to be aware that experts don’t necessarily have a brilliant track record on estimating risk in the face of uncertainty. For example, in the 1990s there were claims that hundreds of thousands of people could die from the ‘human form’ of ‘mad cow’ disease (BSE). In truth, there have been 168 deaths from variant Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), but 1,139 deaths from the long-standing form of the disease in the same period (such a tiny rate of incidence that some have called the BSE-CJD link into question). As Frank Furedi notes, from the Millennium Bug to influenza, experts have provided apocalyptic scenarios of what might happen – and governments have been very willing to act upon them.
This is symptomatic of a contemporary problem with political leadership. In recent years, responsibility for making decisions has been increasingly farmed out to ‘independent experts’. The first act of the New Labour government in 1997 was to hand over control of interest rates – and effectively the entire economy – to the unelected, unaccountable Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. It was a sign of things to come. Since then, any and every decision has been made in a manner designed to make sure that politicians can’t be held responsible if things go wrong. ‘It wasn’t us, guv, it was the experts wot did it. We were just following advice.’ Which does rather raise the question of why we elect leaders in the first place.
Such reliance on experts is not helpful. Just as the volcanologist cannot tell us much, if anything, about jet engines, so it is not the place of experts – no matter how eminent – to make policy. Scientists, engineers and aviation officials can all bring their knowledge to the table, but it is elected officials who must decide how to balance the risks and the benefits of a situation – like flying through an ash cloud. The promotion of experts allows our supposed leaders off the hook. So the UK transport secretary, Andrew Adonis, could tell BBC radio yesterday: ‘I think it’s fair to say that we have been too cautious. “We” being the international safety regulators.’ The only thing that might drown out the noise of jet engines in the next few days is the sound of the buck being passed.
In a British context, the leading candidate for fall-guy is Andrew Haines, the poor schmuck who leads the Civil Aviation Authority, described by the London Evening Standard on Wednesday as the man who shut the skies. Haines might as well spend the next few days with a sign on his back saying ‘KICK ME’. Unfortunately, for all those affected, the politicians have gone missing. Not just for six days, either, but for at least the past 13 years. The politicians fail to take decisions on an important matter, and then blame others for not giving them the right information. It is over-caution combined with cowardice dressed up as outsourcing.
For the past six days, amongst our politicians, there was complete paralysis in the face of this natural event. The notion that there is ‘no safe threshold’ for atmospheric ash particles was clung on to even when test flights conducted by the airlines suggested that it simply wasn’t true. And as Brendan O’Neill describes elsewhere on spiked, there appeared to be positive rejoicing at the absence of planes from our skies. Far from there being desperation to get transport working normally, to release people cooped up in departure lounges or stuck thousands of miles from home, flying was treated as an optional extra, something that society could happily do without.
It was not a volcano that brought sections of society to a standstill – it was political disorientation, the application of the precautionary principle, and a cavalier attitude amongst the elite towards the value of flying in the first place.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.