At the end of 2018 reported sightings of drones near a runway of the UK’s second most busy airport, Gatwick, led to the grounding or redirection of all aircraft. It was the run-up to the Christmas holidays and the media was full of chaotic scenes, with families stranded and sleeping on airport floors. Many wondered how such a major piece of infrastructure could be left unable to function by something as seemingly minor as a flying toy.

An almost hysterical tone prevailed in media and political reactions over the temporary loss of access to the ability to fly, and as authorities sought to find those responsible. In response new legislation was swiftly drafted and millions pledged to be spent on modernising security. Then in January, the drama was repeated when a drone was reported near a runway at the UK’s biggest airport, Heathrow. These incidents revealed both the vulnerability of a certain transport infrastructure, and the degree to which some have come to depend on, and take for granted, the availability of cheap air travel. But memories are short and only a few years earlier Europe’s airways faced a much bigger challenge and revealed a surprising truth – the relative ease and speed with which we can adapt to live without ubiquitous aviation.

In the early hours of Wednesday 14 April 2010, a dormant volcano exploded. It was covered in ice and it had a hard-to-pronounce name – Eyjafjallajökull. Nobody heard it across the mainland of northern Europe because the volcano was far away in Iceland, but the skies above them fell silent. Within hours, airports all over Europe were closing as if a giant master switch for the aviation industry had been flicked to ‘off’. Fine dust from the cloud thrown up by the volcano is lethal to modern jet engines. For days Europe was grounded. “Five miles up the hush and shush of ash/ Yet the sky is as clean as a white slate,” wrote the poet Carol Ann Duffy.

One of the main arteries of the modern world – cheap, ubiquitous air travel – was suddenly cut. What happened next was revelatory, and a demonstration of how rapidly we can adapt to live without seemingly indispensable facets of modern life. It was also a glimpse of a future in which climate change, and ultimately limited oil supplies, have clipped the aviation industry’s wings. It was not a comfortable time for everyone and hit the budget tourism industry in Northern Europe. But for those who did not urgently need to travel, it was a godsend: it was also a powerful revelation of how adaptable we are if necessary.

Wider relevance

Stranded travellers, philosophers and poets filled the airwaves with reflections. Yes, it was inconvenient, they said, no one was prepared. But, supermarkets quickly substituted local produce for perishable, luxury horticultural goods normally flown in; delivery companies switched transport modes, business people took to video conferencing, and Norway’s prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, stranded in New York, ran the Norwegian government from the United States from his new iPad. Suddenly the skies were peaceful and people found other ways to get from one place to another. They took trains, buses, taxis and, aided by social media, shared cars, rooms and experiences. They talked to each other and, travelling at a slower pace, found themselves enjoying the scenery and being more aware of the world they were passing through. Strikingly, given that flying was something many thought we couldn’t live without, the world did not come to a standstill. The sky didn’t fall, it just looked more peaceful. We heard more clearly, as Duffy wrote, “the birds sing in the Spring”. Almost everything simply carried on. Spare capacity in other transport modes was taken up, flexible communications allowed people to be present virtually where they couldn’t be physically, and supply and delivery chains adapted. The airlines suffered economically, but it revealed how few of the things we depend on for day-to-day life really relied on the airlines. Life would be different without them (or far fewer of them) but life would go on, as it had done for thousands of years.

The reason this example matters is that, in spite of the most recent scientific warnings about climate change, the aviation industry, which is a major contributor to the problem, has plans to significantly expand. Meeting the globally agreed 1.5 degree upper limit on global warming to prevent climate breakdown can only be done with ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ according to a special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change .  Yet, in the UK, for example, the Department for Transport predict a more than doubling of demand for air travel by 2050 on present trends, and there are plans to build an additional runway at Heathrow airport, whilst Gatwick too is seeking ways to expand.

Context and background

Two elements of the rapid transition in response to the volcanic cloud were, first, that it was temporary and, second, that it was entirely accidental.  What makes it relevant here is that this brief period demonstrated what until then, governments, business lobbyists and the airlines industry had pretended was not the case: that a great bulk of the existing volume of air travel is not vital after all. The prevailing assumptions  were, and in many circles remain, very different, resulting in airlines all over the world being subsidised, and the industry increasing in size, such as with the expansion of Heathrow Airport, which has since been given the go-ahead by UK ministers. The eruption forced them to take notice and – although they may since have forgotten the impact – it was absolutely unmissable at the time.

Enabling factors

Two elements were decisive in explaining why this transition came about when it did. The first trigger was the design of aero engines and that it was believed they would fail if flown through volcanic ash clouds – a view supported by a significant number of  technologists. If the risk had been more familiar, it is possible that the authorities would have calculated differently and allowed some planes to fly. However, the risk presented by the volcanic ash clouds were new and unrehearsed, and so it was not possible for the aviation industry to set out counter arguments in time. The second element was the caution exercised by EU Governments to this unknown threat, who were prepared to clash with airline corporations to force the closure of the skies when the lives of their citizens were at risk. The combination of these two factors brought about this unique period of clean skies.

The speed of adaptation was enabled, as demonstrated above, by the fact that there were so many possible workarounds to not being able to fly. A combination of social media, digital technology and increasingly high-speed internet connections, human cooperation and the realisation that spare capacity existed widely in other transport networks all contributed. Another dimension was the clarity of the closure of the airlines, which spurred both individuals, businesses and, in this case politicians too, to seek alternatives. When faced with an unavoidable challenge, a clear prohibition on one course of action, we instantly innovated and found other ways to do what we needed to do. This, perhaps, is one of the greatest lessons: that if the challenge is fully accepted it rapidly leads to ingenuity and the discovery of alternatives.

Scope and speed

European airspace was mainly closed for just six days, from 15-21 April 2010, cancelling about 100,000 flights in total. More than 10 million people were stranded, some of them at home. The airlines lost $1.7 billion USD and the airports 250 million Euros, although the economic advantages to other businesses that benefited from people’s sudden shifts of plan – the other transport operators, hotels and video conferencing facilities – are not recorded. Airline kerosene consumption dropped by more than a quarter, by 1.2 million barrels a day. Another volcano eruption in May 2011 threatening the airline industry again, but this time the response was more muted.

Notably, now, attitudes to flying are increasingly being questioned and beginning to change. In Denmark climate change has reportedly risen to be the major public issue of concern during its 2019 election campaign. In response, the leading daily newspaper, Politiken, has altered both its editorial policy and staff practices.  Flying by staff will be radically reduced and while its travel section is to focus on local and regional destinations which are easily reached by public transport. Elsewhere, ‘no fly’ initiatives are ironically taking off. No Fly Climate Sci is a group of ‘earth scientists, academics, and members of the public,’ committing to either not fly or fly less, and hashtags like #FlightFree2019 are becoming increasingly common. Eyjafjallajökull showed, in a dramatic and sudden way, how quickly we can change and adapt.


Lessons for a rapid transition

  1. We don’t really need air travel, anything like as much as we have come to take it for granted.
  2. We should take the opportunity of these moments of clarity to rethink and introduce changes.
  3. The unexpected has a huge power to change, opening opportunities to do things differently, before vested interests with a stake in the status quo can take a position.