Thursday, April 22, 2010

The volcano eruption interferes with airplane travel demonstrating part of our future

Overlooking the Eyjafjallajökull glacier and the ongoing volcano eruption from Hvolsvöllur on April 18th, 2010. On March 20, 2010 and then on April 14, the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano in Iceland erupted. This led to widespread disruption of air travel in Europe from 15 April, grounding planes and affecting the travel plans of millions of passengers worldwide. What I'm finding interesting isn't the direct effect this eruption has put on airlines and airline travelers, but what it demonstrates about our future as oil supplies tighten.

The eruption's aftermath affected travel around the world, with air space across more than 20 European countries remaining largely closed until April 20. The volcano erupts on a very long time scale, with the last eruption lasting (on and off) for over a year between 1821 and 1823. Since previous eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull have been followed by eruptions at its larger neighbour, Katla, there is some concern for a larger eruption to occur very soon. The Icelandic Meteorological Office published a study last December pointing to a rise in seismic activity that obviously was a precursor to this eruption.

The news is full of reports of economic trouble being faced by airlines, and by the inconvenience to travelers. The airlines problem is that, being unable to conduct flights, they cannot earn revenue, while at the same time they're spending money just from airplane ownership and other operations. As a result there are calls for an airline bailout. And of course the traveler inconvenience makes for heart wrenching stories with people struggling to find a way to get home from their holiday trip.

What this demonstrates is the clinging to the way things are. The situation is a disruption of normalcy, and the stories are entirely about the effort to return to normal. The airlines are returning back to business as usual, and the travelers are breathing a sigh of relief that normal travel routines will resume.

This specific instance is obviously a temporary disruption. Well, "temporary" in this case is determined by the length of the eruption and the actual effect of the airborn ash on airplanes. Air travel was grounded because of policies stemming from experience that turbine powered jet airplanes, when exposed to silicate ash from volcanoes, experience engine failure which would tend to cause an airplane crash. In any case, as a temporary disruption it isn't worth much pondering except for the discussion over better determination of the how much ash it takes to actually ground all air travel.

What I think it demonstrates though is the future when rising oil prices, due to depletion of oil production, will be a long term disruption of airlines functioning as business entities. One reason airplanes have become the dominant form of world travel, and global airplane travel has caused globalization, is due to the cheap oil that's fueled this great orgy of high energy living.

As oil prices rise (due to peak oil) airline travel will be less affordable causing a decline in travel. When that occurs airline companies will be facing a similar financial problem to the one they face today, declining revenue and a fleet of expensive airplanes on the tarmac demanding maintenance, insurance, and other costs. Unlike today, in that future it won't be a temporary disruption, the supply of oil based fuels will simply rise, and rise, and rise even more, with no end in sight.

Today's struggle to return to normalcy will seem like a minor blip in a couple months. It demonstrates that the airline executives and travelers will struggle for normalcy before giving up on airline travel. It demonstrates that in our future there will be an oil price shock that drives the airlines out of business, and there will be worldwide denial over the issue, and a worldwide struggle to return to the normalcy we experience today.