After clouds of volcanic ash from Iceland closed airports in Ireland and Scotland earlier this week, aviation authorities are warning that disruptions could continue throughout summer. A spokesman for the UK’s Civil Aviation Administration had mixed news for travelers, saying:
“There is no doubt that if the volcano continues to erupt and the ash is of a density that is unsafe, we will see more no-fly zones. The new limit [revised rules now let planes to fly through clouds with some ash, whereas during the six-day shutdown no ash was permissible] means that hopefully we will not see the levels of closures that we had last month.”
Volcanologists say the Iceland volcano is likely to keep producing ash for months based on its past history. “The only thing we know for certain is that the last time, this volcano erupted, it erupted for two years [from 1821 to 1823],” said Durham University’s Colin Macpherson.
However, the major factor in air travel disruptions is not the ash itself, but the winds that carry the ash clouds. Last month’s major disruptions would have been avoided were it not for atypical northerly winds. The UK’s national weather service says those northerly winds occur about 15% of the time during the summer months. In the short term, problematic winds are relatively predictable, but not more than a week in advance. “Wind direction is actually one of the easier things to forecast in what is a very complicated picture, but we wouldn’t look more than about six days ahead with any confidence,” said a weather service spokesperson.
Even short closures can have major economic consequences. Ireland’s Tourism Minister, Mary Hanafin, gave the following estimates: “In the month of May, for everyday we are closed we are down 17,500 visitors. That’s €10 million (about $12.7m) per day.”
If you’re planning on traveling by air to or from Europe this summer, consumer group Holiday Which? says “”The only way to fully protect yourself is to buy a package holiday.” Holiday Which? has been unable to find any insurer willing to cover volcano-related cancellations of hotels, rental cars, etc., and recommends packages because if your flight is canceled or rescheduled, you will also be able to cancel or reschedule your entire package.