The cloud crisis

The ash cloud is on my mind more than yours, I’ll bet, because I outran it and because I’m concerned for my friends at re:publica and elsewhere who are still trying to get home by tortured combinations of planes, trains, and automobiles (and boats). It’s a big deal, a profound crisis with profound implications.

But I don’t see government, the airline industry, and media responding that way. They can’t see past their noses and the ashes right ahead of them.

In media, I’ve seen next to no stories looking at the long-term impact and implications; that’s what Richard Sambrook — ex BBC newsman — asked for this morning. The best I’ve found is Robert Paterson asking whether the volcano presents a Black Swan event. All over Twitter and blogs I see the big questions being asked; I don’t see media trying to answer them. I fear it’s not built to.

The airlines are, understandably, engulfed in crisis. But I’d like to see them get dispensation from governments, airports, and other airlines to ferry passengers out of other airports: Get yourself to Rome, Lufthansa could say, and we’ll use a jet stuck in America to get you back (and not have to refund your ticket).

Governments are issuing edicts about safety, which is, indeed, their job. And now they’re going to face fights from airlines: KLM is sending up test flights and making noise about the bans being overkill: “We are asking the authorities to really have a good look at the situation, because 100 percent safety does not exist,” the spokesman said (how comforting; how good for their band; KLM becomes the Toyota of the air — safe enough). But others are testing, too, and are finding gunk in jets: see this and this (via Suw) and this (via Rob Paterson again). So government will have its work cut out protecting us.

Meanwhile, we, the people, are taking our fate into our hands — organizing without organizations, as Clay Shirky would see it. @calaisrescue organized a Dunkirk-like flotilla to take people across the Channel until French authorities stopped them. Friend Heather Gold, stuck in Berlin on her way to Finland, is sending people to ride-sharing and couch-sharing services to help. Friend Micah Sifry, who left Berlin for Zurich and next Rome, says Twitter — the people who use Twitter, of course — has been a Godsend, as it was for me, along with the Google Maps that navigated me and my rescuers to Munich. We’re doing the best we can.

What’s failing us, all in all, is our power structures, which aren’t built to think big and fast at the same time. They should be bending rules to get planes and people to where planes can fly to get people home. They need to be thinking about and taking action about the bigger implications for the European and then world economies (more on that later). Companies of all shorts should be standing up to provide relief (Skype and Cisco offering video conferencing; pharmacy companies offering to help the people lost without prescriptions I’m seeing in Twitter; airlines should let us use their sites to book seats and work out the refunds later, promising not to rip us off; bus and train companies moving mountains to move people — instead of ripping them off, as is unfortunately happening in some cases). They are treating this is a short-term, one-time event. It may well not be. This piece in the Times of London explains why and how this could go on for sometime — and repeat itself.

  • Jeff,

    Just in Britain 3000 people were will last year in car accidents, and nobody is suggesting to ban car driving.

    It’s the Mandarins.

    It’s the bureaucrats.

    It’s the elections in Britain.

    It’s computer models against real facts.

  • Absolutely agree that there is a surprising dearth of analysis in the media about what the broader impacts of the ash may be–while such speculation (from smart people) is flowing on social networks.

    As for the “power” responses–this doesn’t surprise me at all. I worked in the science policy realm during the creation of Homeland Security and attended several meetings of Federal emergency response cooperation planning. Nothing I witnessed gave me confidence that the bureaucracy would break through its normal snails pace of decision-making. Katrina hit and that’s exactly what we saw. So what’s happening now is just what I’d expect.

  • Nothing better than read the Professional Pilots forum.

    They are ready to fly.

  • And what about some British Sunday newspapers ignoring the ashes chaos in their front pages!

  • KLM has resumed limited operations tonight

  • julien fourgeaud

    you’re right, this crisis is definitely not well handled by institutions.
    But what it shows, again, is that, we, the people, can make a difference.
    I was stuck in germany, got put in touch with a french guy heading to Paris thanks to friends.
    Got a ride from him, spent a good time talking engineering, car simulations and social media.
    Now in a train to Besancon to pick up a car and drive to London.
    I’ll pick up an italian guy who is stuck along the way and will have 2 seats left in the car for other passengers.
    If you’re heading to London from Paris/north France/belgium, please get in touch with me: @jfourgeaud
    i’ll be glad to help!
    And let’s turn a crisis into a fun road trip!

  • According to volcanologists, Icelandic volcanism is entering an active phase, estimated to last 60 years & peak ca 2035.

  • We fully agree with your thoughts Jeff. It has been left in the hands of social media to consider the greater fallout to this volcano crisis. We have posted our analysis of what this means to retail around the globe on our blog. Feel free to have a read.

  • cv harquail

    Hi Jeff- i’m so glad to see your post. Was just logging in from what was going to be an offline vacatio ( but we brought the iPad which you’ll appreciate). We’re in Venice Italy literally tripping over stranded vacationers. At both Newark & Rome airports we saw firsthand the comparatively minor frustration and fear, which was in full force at the trains stations. The big questions here are– where is the information? The advice? The official word(s)? We arrived in Rome to find nearly all flights out cancelled ( sat am). But nobody at Alitalia thought to let us know en route or to cluster passengers by ultimate destination to give out train schedules. And that’sjust the obvious easy stuff that a bunch of NBA students would have suggested in 10 minutes of class discussion.
    Thereare many other problems that are midlevel — larger than one to one of Twitter and smaller
    than the national guard, that companies & other orgs (church groups, businesses) should be jumping in to help with. I hope that the only reason I don’t see th is that our media diet here is limited. But I wonder — this could be such an opportunity. Also, hoping we get home at end of week. Who wants to be stranded in Rome rather than home in Montclair?

  • Ranko

    Anyone wondering why these boats:

    are not on their way to Europe, filled with crews building living quarters and kitchens? IIRC, there was a building/program in the UK that built a living house out of containers, I am sure it could be adapted fairly quickly for traveling arrangements.


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  • The lesson this volcano and nature or life in general learns us is that all structures will disintegrate from within. “The most rigid structures, the most impervious to change, will collapse first” (quote by Eckhart Tolle). We are witnessing how old and manmade structures like the airline industry and governments are defending themselves and “fight back”.

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