Who would have thought that volcanic ash from Iceland would ground air traffic around the world, with cancellations cascading from Europe to North America and Asia in a matter of days?
Who would have imagined that a geological force that dates back to before dinosaurs would defeat the best jet engines that modern technology can offer?
And who could have predicted that an industry that spends months focused on on-site learning, networking, andfor a single event could have all that work shredded by an inability to move participants, or products, from point A to point B?
The next week will hone to a razor’s edge the practice of cost-benefit analysis, as European airlines and regulators try to balance $200 million per day in losses against the amount of volcanic ash (and limited visibility) an airliner can safely withstand. Bear in mind that this isn’t the kind of ash that disperses in a gentle breeze, according to the U.S. Geological Survey: In contrast to the “soft, fluffy material created by burning wood, leaves, or paper,” volcanic ash consists of “small, jagged pieces of rocks, minerals, and volcanic glass the size of sand and silt.”
On Monday, European Union transport ministers divided the continent’s airspace according to three danger levels—a safe zone open to all flights, a “caution zone” where flights are limited and closely monitored, and a third zone that is closed to air traffic. The compromise sounds sensible, except that we won’t know what we don’t know, until we find out.
That observation leads to tough choices for travelers stranded in Europe. If airspace opens, do you really want to board one of the first flights out? How do you weigh the known cost of further delay against the unknown risk of engines flaming out over the Atlantic? How confident can you be that an airline losing thousands of dollars per minute will pay uncompromising attention to your personal safety?
The longer-term question for our industry is whether Eyjafjallajokull (I had to write it, at least once) is a one-off anomaly or a sign of things to come. Exploding volcanoes will never be everyday events, but there are other kinds of eruptions, caused by human systems and activities, that can be just as devastating for meetings.
When oil prices rose to $147 per barrel in 2008, we saw that oil prices affect every facility and service that meeting professionals take for granted. Sustained prices of $150 or more will ground far more flights, far more permanently, than any volcano.
As climate change brings about a sea-level rise and massive increases in severe storms, destinations will be transformed forever. Many coastal communities will be lost.
We can’t control a volcano. But if we’ve determined that we aren’t having fun with this economic disaster, we might want to pay closer attention to the ones we might be able to prevent or mitigate. The first step is recognizing that Eyjafjallajokull isn’t the end of the story. It’s just an opening act.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.