Image: Akureyi Airport
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
An Icelandair airplane sits on the tarmac as travelers wait for a flight inside the Akureyi Airport, April 24, in Akureyi, Iceland.
By
updated 4/26/2010 12:51:28 PM ET 2010-04-26T16:51:28

In the ageless contest between man and nature, nature reasserted its primacy for an entire week, crippling air travel around the world and sending shudders through the global economy.

Man is now studying the lessons of the volcanic eruption to see how to, if not tame it, at least live with it.

From science to politics, the cloud of volcanic ash that drifted into the bustling air corridors of Europe revealed the inadequacy of the response system to an unfamiliar disaster. It is leading to a thorough post-mortem of an event that scientists say could recur any time — and perhaps with even greater severity.

Civil authorities reacted with extreme caution immediately after the April 14 explosion of Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced ay-yah-FYAH-lah-yer-kuhl) volcano, imposing a blanket no-fly ban in skies stretching from Scotland to Hungary. More than 100,000 flights were canceled, affecting some 1.2 million travelers a day.

"The unpreparedness of the whole decision-making chain was evident from the start," said David Henderson, a spokesman for the Association of European Airlines.

Siim Kallas, the European Union transport commissioner, said he will begin working next week with colleagues to lay out a road map for similar events.

The list of questions he faces is long and complex: How to measure the density and trajectory of an ash cloud; how to determine the safety threshold for each kind of engine; how to weigh the potential economic fallout against the potential danger; how to balance passengers' rights against the industry's health; how to coordinate the response to a crisis?

Some answers almost certainly will compromise the jealously guarded sovereignty with which each nation has protected its air space, even as it relinquished an ever increasing share of control on the ground to the bureaucracy in Brussels.

Kallas said Friday he will present preliminary thoughts to the EU's executive next Tuesday. Among them, he will propose speeding up the plan to unify control over all European skyways.

"The absence of a single European regulator for air traffic control made it very difficult to respond to this crisis," he told reporters. "We needed a fast, coordinated European response to a crisis. Instead, we had a fragmented patchwork of 27 national air spaces. ... We need a single European regulator for a single European sky."

A seamless EU air navigation system would straighten out Europe's zigzag air routes to reduce fuel and congestion in the sky that now keeps planes circling in a landing queue. It also would beef up the role of the European Air Safety Agency that now deals largely with planes' airworthiness, and would enable a single command center to divert traffic and to provide detailed data to national air traffic centers.

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The EU had planned to start putting the Single European Sky reforms into effect in 2012, but Kallas said the latest crisis showed "we cannot afford to wait that long."

It's unclear if the reform would have led to a different response than the nervous reaction by the national civil aviation bodies that went along with the blanket closure, at least with the knowledge currently available.

Travel services and import-exporters will study the lessons of improvisation. In the week when most European passenger and cargo terminals were closed, businesses like DHL, the delivery service, engaged in creative routing to move essentials through the few open airports, mostly in Spain, and from there by truck. It's likely that more companies will look into emergency alternatives, including rail and refrigerated shipping for perishables.

Scientists and flight engineers, who still are unsure what is safe and what isn't, will be studying the effects of flying through volcanic debris, which can vary in concentration, chemical makeup and toxicity.

There is an urgency in the work to be done. Eyjafjallajokull has a history of lengthy eruptions, alternately sputtering with lava and exploding with ash for months at a time. And geologists are expecting an even more powerful volcano, Katla, to become active. The last time it erupted, in 1918, men were still flying biplanes.

Lessons learned?
For politicians and regulators, the debate has just begun over what can be learned.

Aviation executives denounced the lockdown in the sky as a knee-jerk overreaction, but authorities defended their action as prudent.

"It may be too early for us to provide a full list of lessons learned, except that the safety-first precautionary principle must be applied in any future similar situation," said Philip von Schoppenthau, secretary-general of the European Cockpit Association, which represents 38,200 pilots from 36 nations.

Initial calculations put airline losses from canceled flights at around $2 billion, but that is only the beginning of the red ink, Missed flights must be refunded, hotels and meals paid for, flights rebooked. That is EU law, Kallas said. "This is not a voluntary scheme."

But airlines said those rules should be reviewed for extreme cases. "We have also learned that European passenger rights rules simply do not seem to work in conditions like this," said Henderson. Unless they are amended, he said, airlines can keep paying "until they run out of cash."

The airlines say they should be entitled to government support, just like the U.S. government granted $5 billion in subsidies to the airlines after their fleets were grounding by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Slideshow: Eruption in Iceland (on this page) As for travelers, some will take away personal lessons from the ordeal, perhaps rethinking their dependency on air travel in a world where hopping a flight was once second nature.

The crisis only highlighted the shortcomings of airplanes as opposed to, say, trains: lengthy and intrusive security checks, shrinking leg room on board, deliberate overbooking and mounting hidden costs like paying extra for food or drink, a second suitcase and even hand luggage.

For a natural calamity of this scale, it is remarkable that no one was harmed.

In fact, no plane has ever been brought down by volcanic ash. The closest to a disaster came in 1989 when a KLM Boeing 747 flew through an ash cloud over Alaska. All four engines failed and the plane dropped more than two miles in five minutes. The pilots reignited the engines with about one minute left before crashing.

That event taught pilots to act counterintuitively: not to add thrust to a dying engine, which only heats the ash quicker and clogs up the rotors faster.

But there may be no escape from some disasters.

In 1783, another volcano in Iceland, Laki, pumped 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the air in an eruption that lasted off and on for eight months. The thick and poisonous haze over Europe literally suffocated thousands of people to death.

Arthur Max reported from Amsterdam. Slobodan Lekic is an AP aviation writer.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Volcanic eruption in Iceland

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  1. Stranded British citizens wait beside the Pride of Bilbao Ferry, at Santurtzi, northern Spain, before the trip back to Britain Wednesday, April 21. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A passenger jet flies over houses as it prepares to land at Heathrow Airport, London, U.K. Flights returned to Europe's skies in greater numbers Wednesday after the chaos caused by ash blown from an erupting Icelandic volcano. (Ben Stansall / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Tourists who were evacuated by the Belgian Army hug relatives as they arrive in Zaventem airport, Belgium. (Dirk Waem / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Passengers rest as they wait for their delayed flights at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India. The International Air Transport Association says disruptions to European air travel caused by the volcanic ash cloud have cost the industry at least $1.7 billion. (Gurinder Osan / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A wounded soldier is carried from a C-17 transport plane to an ambulance after it arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., carrying 20 wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, on Tuesday, April 20. Volcanic ash in the airspace over Europe prevented the U.S. military from flying battlefield wounded to an Air Force hospital in Germany. (Cliff Owen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. French citizens Mercedes and Jimmy Elahcene sit together in John F. Kennedy International Airport, Tuesday, in New York City. Stranded since Saturday, they said they do not have enough money for a hotel. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Jon Oscar Bjorgvinnossen drags a stressed and stubborn sheep across ash covered ground to a barn on the Berjanes farm near the town of Hvolsvollur, Iceland on Tuesday. The ash has contaminated the farm's grazing land making it necessary to evacuate all animals. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Relatives of passengers wave to a Lufthansa airplane as it takes off from the airport in Duesseldorf, Germany, on Tuesday, headed for Chicago. Travel chaos in Europe began to ease as some countries resumed flights after days of closures due to volcanic ash clouds from Iceland. (Volker Hartmann / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. People greet family members at Tegel airport in Berlin after they returned from Palma de Mallorca on one of the first flights bringing passengers back to Germany on April 20. (Thomas Peter / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A member of the German Air Traffic Control center crisis management group points at a map showing the current air traffic in the sky over Germany near Frankfurt on Tuesday, April 20. The Eurocontrol air traffic agency in Brussels said it expects 55 to 60 percent of flights over Europe to go ahead Tuesday, a marked improvement over the last few days. By midmorning, 10,000 of Europe's 27,500 daily flights were scheduled to go. (Marius Becker / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. An aircraft of Air Berlin approaches Tegel airport in Berlin on April 20. Frustrated by the days-long grounding, both Lufthansa and Air Berlin began flying without full air-traffic control. (Gero Breloer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Passengers sleep at the T4 Barajas airport, in Madrid, Spain, on April 20. Spain offered to let Britain and other European countries use its airports as stopovers to get passengers stranded by the volcanic ash cloud traveling again by train, bus and ferry. (Daniel Ochoa de Olza / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kaylian Vanhadenhoven, 13, of Belgium, offers bread and jam to other stranded passengers at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on April 20, as many passengers traveling to and from Europe were still stuck due to canceled flights. (Seth Wenig / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Ash and smoke bellow from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano near Hella, Iceland, on Tuesday, April 20. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A technician takes a photograph of an engine on a Lufthansa aircraft at Tegel airport in Berlin, on April 20. (Gero Breloer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. An Icelandic farmer clears ash from a goat house after heavy ash billowing from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano covered this farm in Steinar, Iceland, on April 20. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A British family prepares to board the Royal Navy warship HMS Albion at Santander's port, northern Spain, on April 20. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A woman hugs her boyfriend as he arrives at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam on April 20. (Toussaint Kluiters / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. When the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano began erupting on March 20, the first lava to erupt came from vents on the lower slopes of the volcano, which were snow-covered, but not under the mountain’s year-round ice cap. Lava flows filled gullies and built mounds of frothy rock, and they melted and vaporized the winter snow, creating relatively small steam plumes. In mid-April, however, the character of the eruption changed dramatically, and this natural-color satellite image from April 17 provides a look at the new eruptive phase. A cloud of charcoal-brown ash covers half the image. A fresh plume of ash rises over the summit, its southern face illuminated by sunlight and its northern face deeply shadowed. The ash column casts a tall shadow onto the snow-covered ground to the north. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Huw Thomas, of England, eats his breakfast in his cot at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Monday, April 19. Thomas and his family were originally supposed to fly back to England from a vacation in New York on Friday, April 16, but now they are unsure of when they'll be able to return home. (Seth Wenig / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Molten lava shoots out of an erupting volcano near Eyjafjallajokull, on April 19. An Icelandic volcano that has grounded planes across Europe is spitting lava but less ash, officials said on Monday, offering travellers hope that skies might clear at a faster rate. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A passenger rests on her belongings in the departures area at Madrid's Barajas airport on April 19. (Sergio Perez / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Passengers wait for a train to depart to Rome at Milano Centrale train station on April 19 in Milan, Italy. Passengers are looking for alternative routes to return home after days of disruption in air travel as volcanic ash continues to fill the atmosphere over Europe. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Ash covers an evacuated farm as smoke and ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano block daylight on April 19, near Porvaldseyri. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A couple sleeps at Gatwick airport in southern England on April 19. (Carl Court / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A stranded passenger waits with her luggage at Termini train station in Rome on April 19. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A man crosses an empty departures hall at Gatwick airport in southern England on April 19. (Carl Court / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Iceland's Eyjafjallajoekull volcano continues to erupt in this image released on Sunday, April 18. The eruption has caused havoc with air travel across Europe and forced hundreds of locals to evacuate their homes. (Ragnar Th Sigurdsson / www.arctic-images.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A National Geographic film crew sets up on southern Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier after landing close to the volcano on April 18. Scientists say that because the volcano is situated below the glacial ice cap, magma is being cooled quickly, causing explosions and plumes of grit. (Reynir Petursson / Helicopter.is / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Farmer Bjarni Thorvaldsson pulls volcanic ash off a barn roof on April 18. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Volcanic ash mixes with water, sliding down a barn roof near Eyjafjallajokull on April 18. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. A passenger waits at Bilbao airport in northern Spain on April 18, after all flights were canceled due to the ash. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Synchronized ice skating coaches Danka Durasevic, right, and sisters Sara and Sandra Perl, all from Croatia, look for a cab that will fit all their luggage in New York on April 18. They were among the thousands of visitors stranded in the U.S. due to the ash. (Seth Wenig / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. A cloud of ash looms over a farm on April 17. (Ingolfur Juliusson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Dairy farmer Berglind Hilmarsdottir of Nupur, Iceland, looks for cattle lost in ash clouds on April 17. (Brynjar Gauti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Ranchers corral cattle in Nupur as volcanic ash swirls around them on April 17. (Brynjar Gauti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Volcanic ash is seen over Iceland´s main ring road near Skogar, east of the eruption on April 17. (Brynjar Gauti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. A plane flies past smoke from the volcano on April 17. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. A traveler watches a giant board announcing canceled flights at the Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris on April 17. Three airports in Paris and 23 others across the country were closed because of the cloud of ash. (Thomas Coex / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Two flight controllers in Belgrade, Serbia, chat after the closing of airspace over Serbia April 17. (Alexa Stankovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Travelers rest at the deserted Austrian Airlines terminal at the Vienna airport after all flights were grounded on April 17. (Leonhard Foeger / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Train passengers crowd the Milan railway station in Italy on April 17. Europeans are turning to different modes of transportation with so many flights grounded. (Luca Bruno / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Cars line up at a departure point at the car ferry terminal in Calais, France, on April 17. Ferry operators in Britain received a flurry of bookings from people desperate to cross the English Channel to France, while London taxi company Addison Lee said it had received requests for journeys to cities as far away as Paris, Milan, Amsterdam and Zurich. (Michel Spingler / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. A reddish sky at sunrise hangs over Budapest, Hungary, on April 17 as ash spewed by Iceland's Eyjafjallajoekull volcano reaches across Europe. (Gyula Czimbal / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Horses graze as a cloud of volcanic matter rises from the erupting Eyjafjallajokull volcano, on Friday, April 16, in Fimmvorduhals, Iceland. (Nordicphotos / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Passengers rest on cots as they wait for the resumption of air travel on April 16 at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. (Torsten Silz / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Passengers wait in a terminal in Frankfurt on April 16. (Michael Probst / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. Passengers wait for transportation to Gatwick Airport after arriving in Glasgow, Scotland on April 16. (Jeff J. Mitchell / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. Ground staff place a protective cover on the engines of an aircraft at Belfast City Airport in Northern Ireland on April 16. (Peter Muhly / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  50. A ground stewardess of Air France/KLM distributes croissants to would-be travellers at Vienna's Schwechat airport on April 16. (Hans Klaus Techt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  51. Check-in counters are closed at the airport in Duesseldorf, Germany, on April 16. (Oliver Berg / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  52. A plume of volcanic ash from Iceland, top left, streams eastward on April 15. (NEODAAS, University of Dundee via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  53. Volcanic scientists leave the area after collecting samples of ash in eastern Iceland on April 15. (Omar Oskarsson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  54. Passengers wait at the departures area at Madrid Airport in Spain on April 15. (Andrea Comas / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  55. Smoke and steam hang over the volcano in Iceland early April 15. Ash from the eruption is drifting into other countries in northern Europe and forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights. (Brynjar Gauti / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  56. A sign at England's Luton Airport warns passengers of flight delays and cancellations on April 15, after Britain's Civil Aviation Authority grounded all non-emergency flights. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  57. A farmer took this picture of the Eyjafjöll volcano shortly after its most recent eruption on April 14.
    View two versions of this image in PhotoBlog and discuss which you prefer. (Olafur Eggertsson / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  58. Glacier melt from the erupton flooded areas along this river on April 14. (Icelandic Coast Guard via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  59. A plume of ash and steam rises in Iceland on April 14. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  60. Rescue teams evacuate residents from rapidly rising waters near the volcano on April 14. (Halldor Kolbeins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  61. A plume of steam from the volcano rises 22,000 feet on April 14. (Icelandic Coast Guard via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  62. The eruption melted ice on the glacier around the volcano, flooding local areas on April 14. Hundreds of residents were evacuated. (Icelandic Coastguard via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  63. Rivers of lava flow from a volcanic eruption between the Myrdalsjokull and Eyjafjallajokull glaciers on March 24. (Helen Maria Bjornsd / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  64. A helicopter flies in front of lava shooting from a volcanic eruption between the Myrdalsjokull and Eyjafjallajokull glaciers on March 24. (Helen Maria Bjornsd / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  65. Tourists gather to watch lava spurting from the site of a volcanic eruption at the Fimmvorduhals volcano near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier on March 27. (Halldor Kolbeins / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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