The economic importance of air travel

Contemplating the volcano-induced disruption in European air travel, The Economist concluded that it had such a small economic impact as to be unmeasurable. Business meetings that people thought were super important were just as successfully held over the phone, and domestic hotels and restaurants gained business from those further afield.

One way of thinking about this is to say that it demonstrates how frivolous most air travel is. The article claims that “globalisation is far more about ships than about planes” and, aside from the potential of a lengthy air travel hiatus to disrupt certain segments of some supply chains, the temporary suspension of air travel has a limited effect.

It would be fine for air travel to be frivolous if it was otherwise benign. Unfortunately, long trips via plane produce unacceptable quantities of greenhouse gases. Giving up long-distance travel is one of the single most effective voluntary steps most people can take to reduce how much harm they are doing to future generations, via greenhouse gases and climate change. Surely, their right to live on a planet that has a stable climate compatible with human flourishing trumps the right of those alive today to spend the weekend in Helsinki or enjoy a quick winter jaunt to Spanish beaches.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

53 thoughts on “The economic importance of air travel”

  1. Flying isn’t important because the economy depends on it. It is important because it broadens the knowledge people have of the world, and lets friends and family members spend time together.

    It may be unethical to do, given the harm to future generations, but the apparent fact that it contributes little to GDP isn’t a reason to stop doing it.

  2. The right approach is not to single out air travel for punishment. Rather, it is to ‘punish’ all activities that harm the climate with a rising carbon price. People can then decide where it is worth paying, and where emissions are better avoided.

  3. I agree with RK. I’ve had the dilemma of restricting air travel at the expense of keeping my daughter isolated in one tiny part of the world. All the tv programs, books or movies in the world don’t provide the same sort of exposure to a different culture than even a few days in another country does. I don’t like anything about air travel except that it’s faster than other modes of transportation and I will use other modes of transportation whenever it’s remotely possible and I’m not going to fly just to lay on a beach somewhere, but once in a while I would like to take my child somewhere interesting and farther away and expand her knowledge of the world.

  4. I agree that there are some very important personal reasons to travel long distances.

    I suppose what I object to most is the feeling of entitlement many people seem to have. It should be acknowledged that just paying for your ticket doesn’t give you the right to fly. Choosing to fly means choosing to hurt other people, and as such decisions about whether to do it should be subjected to moral consideration.

  5. Maybe the thing to do if you really want to travel and really care about the environment is to become a flight attendant. Unlike being a passenger, you would not be contributing incrementally to how many planes fly. And you would get to travel all over the world.

  6. I really hate the moral argument, which has been discussed here before. Morality is an abstract concept which, in my opinion, has no place in the climate change argument. The only reason to bring up morality is to accuse others of acting amorally, which is always only relative to the accuser’s personal situation.

    Also, I generally drive more kilometers over the course of a year than I fly, and I would bet this is the case for most people. Each kilometer driven is significantly more carbon intensive than each one flown. Therefore, I think cars deserve much more of your derision than aircraft. Ships as well.

  7. People certainly do other emissions intensive things. That said, I bet the single thing readers of this blog could do that would reduce their emissions most would be to fly less, or not at all. Many of my family members and friends probably emit more each year just by flying than I emit altogether.

    Morality is an abstract concept which, in my opinion, has no place in the climate change argument.

    Morality is an inescapable part of any discussion on how to respond to climate change. The only reason why we care about what the climate is like in 100 years is because we are concerned about the people (and perhaps other living things) that will be around then. If we were indifferent to how future generations will live their lives, we would have little reason to be concerned about climate change.

  8. The only reason why we care about what the climate is like in 100 years is because we are concerned about the people (and perhaps other living things) that will be around then.

    I still disagree that it’s an issue of morality. I think we mostly are concerned about climate change and other threats to humanity because we have an instinctual desire to have our species (and specifically our own progeny) survive. Also, ego is a part of it. The Roman/Greek/Egyptian societies collapsed, but surely ours won’t.

    Also, do you point out that your life is less carbon intensive than others because you feel you are more moral than others? Your life is still carbon positive. For one thing, you live in a particularly cold city that requires a lot of indoor heat. You do this (I think) because it’s convenient to you: your job is there. Is it fair to say you are acting amorally when you could live in a warmer climate but don’t for self-serving reasons?

    I say this not because I’m trying to accuse you of anything, but because I want to illustrate the uselessness of trying to assign some sort of guilt based on invoking the word ‘moral.’ Solution based reasoning is better. That’s why I think carbon pricing is a reasonable near-term goal we should be pursuing. It’s a way of getting the consumers of air travel (or Greyhound bus travel which is no more moral than flying) to pay for their consumption.

  9. I am in Ottawa because I believe, rightly or wrongly, that I can do the most to help deal with climate change here. I would much rather live in Vancouver, or Toronto, or Montreal, or Oxford, or London, or many other places. Not all of them are warmer, but I strongly disagree that my choice to live here is motivated by luxury.

    What really distinguishes flying is that it is truly voluntary, like meat eating. We may have good reasons to criticize all of the industrial structures supporting our society, from intensive agriculture to coal power. But there are some that we can pretty easily walk away from, and I think it is commendable when we do.

    As for morality, I think it is both rather universal and very common sense, when applied here. It is easy to accept that no human generation deserves to be born into a world that has had its climate wildly destabilized – where they won’t know what to grow where, what to build where, and where they cannot live in safety. Insofar as our voluntary actions contribute to the emergence of such a world, they are immoral. To me, that seems like a much more credible case than saying that we want to outdo the Romans. What we ought to want to do is give future generations a fair shot.

    We can accomplish that in a couple of ways. We can change our politics and the material basis of our society, in cases where more benign alternatives are available. And, in cases where our actions are harmful and voluntary, and where there are no good alternatives available, we can simply abstain.

  10. That’s why I think carbon pricing is a reasonable near-term goal we should be pursuing. It’s a way of getting the consumers of air travel (or Greyhound bus travel which is no more moral than flying) to pay for their consumption.

    When people pay a carbon tax, chances are they are bolstering current government revenues and financing things like health care spending and tax cuts for their own generation. It is not as though they are directly compensating those who will be harmed by their emissions.

    And even if we were pooling the carbon tax payments into a fund, to be passed around later to those who have suffered the most harm, it seems foolish to think that a cash payment can undo the harm we have done to them. What cash value should we assign to Bangladesh? Or to the consistency of river flow that accompanies glaciers and summer snowpack?

    And if there is any chance of a runaway climate change scenario, how can we talk meaningfully about compensation at all?

  11. It’s not accidental that we get this kind of “climate change is not about morality” argument. We live in an age when morality has become so subjective that many of my friends think murder or racism are wrong just because they were brought up to feel it was wrong. It’s not random that in this post-truth world where everything is based on bouncing atoms that we would run to some kind of physicalist explanation to give a universal “morality”, i.e. herd instinct for species preservation.

    The truth is, whether or not humans have a “herd instinct for species preservation” is not trivially true – it depends on specificities of past adaptation pressures. Considering that most of our evolutionary history involved living in tribes, not states – where there is far less alienation between the individual and the needs of the group – I think it is very doubtful that we have an evolutionary mechanism to stop global warming.

    The whole point of civilization is replacing brute evolutionary mechanisms with concepts, with language, with ideas which can be passed around and which can evolve and adapt unbelievably quickly in comparison to traditionally evolved traits. Of course we can only have concepts because we evolved the capacity for them – but that does not mean that any particular assemblage of concepts is merely the result of those capacities – it is the result of those capacities interacting with world more complex than could ever be predicted in an adapted trait.

    So, I think this kind of anti-morality argument is bunk for the same reason all anti-intellectual arguments are bunk – we need our intellect, our concepts, to overcome all sorts of challenges today. And there is no reason to think that global warming is simpler than any of the many challenges that require communal conceptual work in response.

  12. The disruption from the volcano was over a relatively short period that any adjustments and delays were not too painful for businesses (excepting air travel and holiday franchises), though still very awkward for some families. A longer term travel restriction would have more effect on aspects of research and business where an individual has to be present in a particular place – the impact could be very different. Though there are increasingly workarounds for everything from surgery to study, there are some areas where hands-on really is required, or where the technological alternative isn’t sufficiently supported either by the enterprise in question or the local overseas infrastructure.

    In many areas of life the informal interactions – over coffee, the chat as you leave a meeting area or in a hotel lobby are critical to immediate outcomes or successful longer term interactions. We are also sensory creatures – in terms of memory and experience, the remote version has less impact (photos and film of tar sands extraction areas do not have the effect I’m sure visiting the destruction would have) . I’m nervous of a more parochial world where the problems of other communities, other environments are never directly experienced, never felt as immediate. The human mind, however much knowledge it gains, is limited in the scope of who and what it cares about and even with the range of mobility of today, the ‘neighbourhood’ of the majority is more NIMBYist than global citizen.

  13. I agree that there are many good things that air travel makes possible. I just think we need to recognize that whenever we choose to fly, we are choosing to harm defenceless members of future generations to a dispersed but quantifiable extent.

    I’d say the onus is on the person who chooses to travel to justify their journey.

  14. As in many activities, moderation is more achievable than the absolute. Air travel is one of those. If the zealous air traveller travels less it will make more of an impact than the elimination by the minimal air travel user. Assume the hypothetical air traveller logs 100,000 kilometers per year (ten round trips of 5,000 km in on direction). If that zealous air traveller cut his/her air travel to 50,000 km, this would be the same as 5 minimal air travel users of 10,000 km per year eliminating air travel altogether.

    Therefore, to decrease consumption let’s encourage the zealous air traveller to cut back.

    A common scheme to encourage air travel are air miles by which the frequent air traveller is encouraged to travel even more. This system feeds the greed of the air travel glutton.

  15. “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.

    We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be.

    The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be.”

    John Holdren
    President’s Science Advisor; Harvard University

  16. I find it strange that so many people seem to think you can make ethical or economic decisions in a way that is divorced from morality.

    Even when hidden behind technical language or approaches, moral decisions are being made. This is true even in cases where there is uncertainty about how serious future problems may be.

    In particular, we are often very quick to assume that people have the right to keep doing what they have done in the past. That isn’t necessarily the case. If an activity that previously seemed to be benign turns out to be harmful to others, it is very plausible that it becomes immoral to continue doing it.

  17. Seems like different commenters are working with different definitions of “morality”. Can we have some attempts at clarification?

  18. I see ethics and morality as the same thing – the consideration of how people ought to behave towards one another, as well as towards any other things in the universe that deserve consideration.

    For example, the Great Barrier Reef isn’t generally thought of as a bearer of rights, but it does seem sensible to say that it is immoral to cause unnecessary harm to it. Partly, that is because humans place value on it. More contentiously, it could be said to have inherent value, as a unique feature within the universe.

  19. morality

    1. Ethical wisdom, knowledge of moral science.

    3. a. Moral virtue; behaviour conforming to moral law or accepted moral standards, esp. in relation to sexual matters; personal qualities judged to be good.

    4. a. Moral discourse or instruction; a moral lesson or exhortation. Also: the action or an act of moralizing.

    6. a. Conformity of an idea, practice, etc., to moral law; moral goodness or rightness.

    7. a. The branch of knowledge concerned with right and wrong conduct, duty, responsibility, etc.; moral philosophy, ethics.

  20. ethics

    2. The science of morals; the department of study concerned with the principles of human duty.

    3. In narrower sense, with some qualifying word or phrase: a. The moral principles or system of a particular leader or school of thought.

    b. The moral principles by which a person is guided.

    c. The rules of conduct recognized in certain associations or departments of human life.

    4. In wider sense: The whole field of moral science, including besides Ethics properly so called, the science of law whether civil, political, or international.

  21. Thanks – some ethicists distinguish slightly different meanings for ethics and morality, but that need not concern us here. I was wondering if you were using them interchangeably when I read this:
    I find it strange that so many people seem to think you can make ethical or economic decisions in a way that is divorced from morality.
    It would be a redundant statement if ethics=morality, but maybe that was just a mistake?

  22. I do use the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ interchangeably. Their definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary suggest that this is appropriate.

  23. I don’t agree with resorting to dictionaries to find the meanings of terms. However, I agree with the interchangeable use of “ethics” and “morals”. My only evidence is that I’ve been studying philosophy since I was 15 and no one has ever differentiated them for me in a way that I found important enough to remember.

  24. Yes, common usage does treat them interchangeably. I was not making a major point, simply noting that I had been a little confused by Milan’s statement that I quoted above.

    I’ve also been studying philosophy, theology and ethics for the last 13 years and a number of ethicists (or moralists) make a slight distinction. For example, some use “morality” to refer to people’s beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil, while reserving “ethics” for the systematic reflection upon that aspect of human experience. Others reverse these terms. There does not seem to be a widely agreed convention.

  25. Even that distinction is particularly weak. If one beliefs something is “wrong”, i.e. an aversion that extends beyond my particular desires, then it is already moved into the domain of the systematic – that which exceeds my individual experience.

    That might be a bit unclear, so here’s an example. I have lots of particular beliefs about what is good or bad for me, but not all of these are “moral” beliefs. For example, my belief that I like ice cream is not a “moral” issue. However, my belief that eating ice cream is wrong because of the systematic torture and killing of animals – this is a “moral” belief. Now, the distinction made above between morals and ethics would demand that this “moral” belief not yet be a “systematic reflection upon that aspect” of experience – but this is plainly wrong. When I think something is wrong, I think it is wrong for others to do it. However, there often appears to be a difference because telling or forcing others to do something that one thinks is wrong is an entirely separate issue to thinking it is wrong for others to do it (perhaps this difference makes up the essence of liberalism).

  26. The distinction is not between whether a particular belief relates only to my behaviour or also to the behaviour of others. That is not what was intended by “systematic”.

    You have glossed systematic as “that which exceeds my individual experience”, but I was using it to refer to whether the belief/judgement is related to other beliefs and judgements in a system of critically reflective thought. So one term can refer to the judgements/beliefs themselves, while the other can be used to refer to the study of those judgements/beliefs.

  27. I think it is plausible that people have subtly different understandings of the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morality.’

    If you got a bunch of experimental subjects and said: “Mr. Smith has been immoral, what do you think he has done?” you would probably get somewhat different answers from if you said: “Mr. Smith has been unethical, what do you think he has done?”

    To speculate, you might find that people answer things like “been unfaithful to his partner” more often in the first case, and answers like “stole money from his employer” more often in the second case.

    In any event, the distinction has little to do with the points I was trying to make above. I was using the two words as synonyms, so as to make sentences less repetitive.

  28. “So one term can refer to the judgements/beliefs themselves, while the other can be used to refer to the study of those judgements/beliefs.”

    So, morals are the beliefs themselves before critical reflection? This a horrible idea – moral beliefs don’t have any status before critical reflection – without critical reflection there is no difference between a moral belief and a belief that I like ice cream. Brute intuitions have no moral status whatsoever.

    All moral beliefs worth being called moral beliefs are already subject to critical evaluation. Subjects who do not critically evaluate their moral beliefs are hardly “subjects” at all, they may as well be tables and chairs.

  29. “Ultimately, [climate change] is not a political issue so much as a moral issue. If we allow that to happen, it’d be deeply unethical. I have such faith in our democratic system, our self-government, I actually thought and believed that the story would be compelling enough to cause a real sea change in the way Congress reacted to that. I thought they would be startled and they weren’t.”

    Al Gore

  30. Or, in more extended form:

    Now an important point: In all of this time, 650,000 years, the CO2 level has never gone above 300 parts per million. Now, as I said, they can also measure temperature. Here is what the temperature has been on our earth. One thing that kind of jumps out at you is. Let me put it this way. If my class mate from the sixth grade that talked about Africa and South America might have said, “Did they ever fit together?” Most ridiculous thing I ever heard. But they did of course. The relationship is very complicated. But there is one relationship that is more powerful than all the others and it is this. When there is more carbon dioxide, the temperature gets warmer, because it traps more heat from the sun inside. In the parts of the United States that contain the modern cities of Cleveland, Detroit, New York in the northern tier. This is the difference between a nice day and having a mile of ice above your head. Keep that in mind when you look at this fact. Carbon dioxide having never gone above 300 PPM, here is where CO2 is now. We give off where it has never been as far back as this record will measure. If you will bear with me I would like to emphasize this point. It’s already right here. Look how far above the natural cycle this is, and we’ve done that. But ladies and gentleman, in less than 50 years it’s going to continue to go up. When some of these children who are here are my age, here’s where it’s going to be in less than 50 years. You’ve heard of off the chart. Within less than 50 years it’ll be here. There’s not a single fact or day or number that’s been used to make this up that is in any controversy. The so-called skeptics look at this and say, “So, that looks seems perfectly okay.” On the temperature side: If this much on the cold side is a mile of ice over our heads, what would that much on the warmer side be?

    This is really not a political issue so much as a moral issue. If we allow that to happen, it is deeply unethical. I have such faith in our democratic system, our self-government, I actually thought and believed that the story would be compelling enough to cause a real sea change in the way Congress reacted to that. I thought they would be startled and they weren’t.

    Admittedly, it works better in the film, with Gore pointing at his gigantic graph of CO2 concentrations in air bubbles from ice cores, compared to projected CO2 levels from burning fossil fuels at ever-increasing rates.

  31. Milan – This is indeed a tangent from the point of the post and I apologise for raising it.

    Tristan – Subjects who do not critically evaluate their moral beliefs are hardly “subjects” at all, they may as well be tables and chairs.
    Looks like Ikea have plenty of competition then. ;-)

  32. “We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.”

    Richard Feynman

  33. The issue is going to be passing on the solutions we find if some of the problems we grapple with turn out to be of a magnitude sufficient to cause widespread social and cultural discontinuities.

  34. Budget Deficit Hits Record
    May 14, 2010 | ISSUE 46•19

    In the face of diminished government revenue, the federal budget deficit set a new record for the month of April. What do you think?

    “I’m not willing to give up any benefits, but they can go ahead and make my grandkids’ lives a living nightmare if that will help.”

  35. I wouldn’t want people to think I simply “agree” with the moral/ethical argument. I think it’s “wrong” to fly considering the effects of global warming. But I also think it’s wrong to not oppose oppressive political structures, to participate in an exploitative and abhorrent system of animal/meat production, etc… But most of all, I think it’s wrong to simply be “against” things, and to be against things “on one’s own”. It’s more essential to be in favour of things, in favour of doing things together. If alienation, civilization, ideas only take us apart, reduce our ability to co-operate with each other, then (retrospectively) it will not have been an adaptive behavior.

  36. No one had as much effect on air travel in 2010 as the horrifying Icelandic mountain ogress Grýla, who this spring launched a plume of ash 30,000 feet into the sky from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, shutting down airports across Europe and costing the global economy hundreds of millions of dollars.

    The eruption was initially attributed to Huldufólk elves believed to be angry at mortals for the desecration of their rock dwellings during the winter of 2009. While gifts of sweets to the elves seemed to produce small gaps in the ash that allowed airspace to be briefly reopened, the cloud as a whole lingered. It was only after millions of travelers had already spent days stranded at airports that embarrassed officials finally conceded that another creature was probably responsible.

    After ruling out the 300-foot Lagarfljóts worm, investigators concluded that only Grýla—best known for emerging from her cave at Christmastime in search of naughty children to stuff in a sack—possessed the power necessary to generate an eruption of Eyjafjallajökull’s magnitude. By then, however, many food items shipped by air had begun to spoil, and a number of world leaders had already missed the funeral of Polish president Lech Kaczyński.

  37. Air travel is an example of an activity which has both good and bad consequences. The negative environmental impact is clear. Yet it also brings people together in a way that other means to not. Moderate air travel is the course that is acceptable for most people even those that are concerned about the environment.

  38. The question – much described here before – is whether we can impose suffering on other people just for our own convenience. It is difficult for me to accept that such conduct is acceptable, even when it allows us to do very pleasant and personally important things.

  39. We impose suffering far more directly and meaningfully through our political support for imperial projects than our passive consumption of the world’s riches.

  40. We have established that from the perspective of emissions, air travel is actually better than some other kinds of travel. The big problem with air travel is that it is so fast, and thus encourages fairly frivolous trips. For instance, people crossing this gigantic country just for the weekend or a few days.

    This is especially true for relatively affluent people; they have lots of money for air fare, and not much time to spend traveling slowly.

  41. “is whether we can impose suffering on other people just for our own convenience”

    You constantly argue with can ignore myriad ways we impose suffering on others because climate change is so much more dire and immediate than every and any other social injustice. Moreover, you’ve withdrawn from arguments which ask that we extend our concern over the imposition of suffering for our own convenience on farm animals and sea creatures.

    The fact is, there is no way you or I can stop being complicit in myriad suffering. The point is not to not be complicit – the point is to make a change in the world. Ethics is fundamentally about action, not inaction. If that means today you fly to see your family, or stay East to make a point about why executives should stay home rather than fly to meetings then that is a decision about action. If that means another day you become a lobbyist or a revolutionary rather than push papers for a genocidal state, then those are decisions are ones to be made not on the basis of reducing one’s complicity, but increasing one’s effectiveness at making a change with the problems which you chose to prioritize.

  42. That seems partly like an elaborate rationalization.

    Traveling cross-country has a big climatic effect, at least as far as one person’s individual choices go.

    As such, it seems like something that it is laudable (if not morally necessary) to avoid, at least most of the time.

  43. Individually travelling across the country has zero effect, because in a market society individual choices have no impact; they are statistically insignificant. What is significant is acting on principles, advancing values, supporting trends. But if we act on principles or values, we can be held to the standard of hypocrisy – why do we support a principle or value in one region, and not in another? However, to the charge of hypocrisy we can always respond, and rightfully so, that we have to make priorities and would suffer from overload if we tried to be concerned with everything. Still, I am deeply confused as to why anyone would care so deeply about the chaos which intercity travel will cause in the future, insofar as it contributes to climate change, and be so little concerned with the chaos and suffering produced by the direct imperial involvement of the political system in which one is involved (me too, by the way), and also involved in the energy distribution system which makes climate destructive intercity travel so available.

    To me, it just seems to be a fact that the easy access to long distance travel which externalizes costs onto the future through climate destabilization is largely dependant on imperial projects where “we” control energy resources in other parts of the world, at the expense of the rights to self-determination of the peoples in those regions. I simply see no sense in separating these issues – they appear to me to be deeply related both politically and morally, and they appear to line up, meaning the duties imposed on us by one re-enforce duties imposed on us by the other.

    Isn’t the most important thing not simply to figure out the correct perspective, but to spread perspectives which have a chance of making a positive change? And, mightn’t spreading these perspectives require travel?

  44. @Oleh – “Moderate air travel is the course that is acceptable for most people even those that are concerned about the environment.”
    Those that are concerned about the environment would include anyone who has an interest in a livable climate into the foreseeable future, and so encompasses pretty much everyone, even if not everyone realises it yet. The “environment” is not a sectional interest of some segment of the population, but – understood as the ecological conditions of possibility of human civilisation (and even for human life full stop) – is the sine qua non of every other interest.

    As for Tristan and Milan’s discussion: my 2p is that Tristan is right to point out the interconnections between climate and a range of other political failures, systematic abuses and crises; Milan is right that climate represents the extension and multiplication of human suffering (through poverty, imperialism, ignorance, greed, fear and so on) on scales both temporal and geographic that is almost unmatched by any other single issue (not that any issue is truly “single”). That is, in my understanding, it is the combination of structures of human society and personal habits that are the causes of human misery, while climate change represents a macro-scale intensification of the conditions under which such structures and habits cause (or result in) misery. The largest climate tragedies are likely to be political and social in nature in which climate has played a magnifying role (food riots, wars over water, oppression and poverty, etc.). Climate is far from the only cause, but it makes such situations much worse, and on a timescale of millennia.

  45. THE first anniversary of the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano whose ash grounded most aircraft in Europe for days, was marked in a perfect way. On April 12th, almost a year later, a plume of ash rose 11 kilometres into the sky above Grimsvotn, another of Iceland’s regularly erupting volcanoes. Airlines and air-traffic controllers across Europe quickly took note. Transfixed by images of the ash cloud on a new visualisation system created for the purpose since Eyjafjallajokull’s eruption, they set up a “crisis cell” and sent out changes to flight plans.

    These messages, though, were helpfully prefixed “Exercise Volcex 11/01 Exercise”. Grimsvotn’s eruption was a purely notional one, part of a two-day drill involving 70 or so airlines and other operators, a dozen air-traffic control systems and a variety of other bodies. In a similar exercise in 2008 only two airlines participated. But that was before last year’s 100,000 flight cancellations, airline losses put at over €1.3 billion (then $1.7 billion) and systemic knock-on effects on everyone from Kenyan farmers to Korean suppliers. Should another ash cloud rise to the skies, Europe will be better able to cope.

    Last year’s standstill came because some regulators of Europe’s fragmented and highly congested airspace shut things down completely—mindful of advice that volcanic ash should always be avoided. One of the aims of Volcex 11/01 was to test a new approach to safety developed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s task force on volcanic ash, set up last July. It would do away with blanket bans in favour of a more targeted way of dealing with the risk. National regulators would make decisions based on assessments by aircraft operators that took in flight plans, equipment and the ash’s disposition.

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