Seven Lessons From the Great Volcano Shutdown of 2010

Eric Weiner: What should we learn from the historic grounding of thousands of flights?

04.19.10 | 12:45 PM ET

Stranded passengers at Frankfurt’s airport today (REUTERS/Johannes Eisele)

When the dust—or in this case, the ash—finally settles over Europe and the Great Volcano Shutdown of 2010 is rendered history, what will we have learned? A few things, I think.

1) We Really Are Living in a Global Village, and That Village Isn’t Always Perfect

A volcano erupts in a remote part of Iceland and within a few days you can’t get a hotel room in Los Angeles or Hong Kong. Such is the interconnected world in which we live. While we benefit from seamless connections and global alliances, we suffer when one part of the international air-travel system—in this case the entire continent of Europe—misfires. A flat world is not always a happy one.

2) Don’t Mess with Iceland

Iceland, until recently a happy boutique nation, became something of a global joke when its overextended banks contributed to the global financial meltdown. Jilted shareholders in Britain, in particular, were furious, and poked fun at the little island-nation that couldn’t. Might the volcanic eruption be Iceland’s revenge for all that ribbing? Perhaps. Why else would the Brits now be crying, “We said send cash, not ash!”

3) Mother Nature Still Gets The Last Word

It’s easy to think that we have, if not conquered Mother Nature, at least subdued Her. The modern airplane is indeed a technological marvel, with fly-by-wire flight controls, onboard radar and enough computing power to run a small city, or even an iPad. But it is still bound by the laws of nature. (One of those laws being that volcanic ash and jet engines don’t mix.) Nature giveth flight and Nature occasionally taketh away. That’s humbling, in a good way.

4) Trains are Good

With European airlines grounded, stranded passengers scrambled for a seat—any seat—on a train. Yes, the old-fashioned, maligned, frumpy train is suddenly the most popular kid in school. And for good reason. Trains are more comfortable than airplanes, more likely to arrive and depart from city centers, with better food, no turbulence, less draconian security, and an actual view of the scenery. And, of course, trains could care less about some giant cloud of volcanic ash. What’s not to like?

5) Airports Make Lousy Bedrooms

Just in case you were wondering.

6) Acceptance is the Only Sane Response to a Situation Like This

When faced with a near-total shutdown of European air travel, there are two possible responses. You could fret, fume, vent and grind your teeth, haranguing the airline staff as if they were personally responsible for the volcanic eruption. Or you could accept the inevitable and belly up to the airport bar for a Bloody Mary, or two, until the ash dissipates. My money is on the latter option.

7) Air Travel is a Miracle, Plain and Simple

A giant vehicle weighing hundreds of tons flies—like a bird—through the skies, soaring—like a bird!—above the clouds at nearly the speed of sound and transporting you in a few short hours to a different time zone, a different climate. Somehow we’ve managed to forget that this is—and there is no other words for it—a f***ing miracle. Maybe the Great Volcano Shutdown of 2010 will remind us.

15 Comments for Seven Lessons From the Great Volcano Shutdown of 2010

Carla Moreno 04.19.10 | 3:20 PM ET

Here, Here!

Don Nadeau 04.19.10 | 3:24 PM ET

Acceptance is indeed the “only sane response” to a situation like this, but you have to feel for people who have neither the money nor credit available for days or possibly weeks of extra hotel nights, meals, etc.

Global Granny 04.19.10 | 6:19 PM ET

True @DonNadeau, but…

1 word:

Likewise, a downgrade of accommodations, eating street food (vs. trendy restaurants), etc.  - which is my personal preferred travel style anyway - will surely make the rubles last a tad longer.

In any case, whining/moaning won’t help a wit when pitted against Mother Nature, so indeed, “acceptance” in the only realistic response after all.

TKGO 04.20.10 | 12:02 AM ET

Such interesting insight! I especially like the first point. It almost makes the whole situation poetic.


City Discovery 04.20.10 | 6:26 AM ET

So true. We’ve written something about this sitch in our blog. Here be the link:

We hope that our customers will read this blog post. Great job, btw.

Lori 04.20.10 | 3:51 PM ET

I appreciate your perspective. It’s the one I’ve had my eye aimed at since we figured out we were not going to make our Sunday flight home…and were rebooked for Saturday instead. It is what it is, after all, no more, no less. It can be frightening in financial aspect, but at some point you just have to acknowledge and move on.

I’ve been blogging about our experiences being stuck in Rome, if you care for a glimpse.

Harkiron 04.21.10 | 12:37 PM ET

a) Precious minerals spewed up by the heaving Mother Earth
b) Teaches about s-l-o-w-i-n-g down the frenetic pace of life as we have come to live lately
c) At least SOME of the toxic after-effect of aviation fuel burning a hole in the ozone layer cancelled out ( but what about the ash-ridden air?)
d) Touch base with long-forgotten friends / relatives / acquaintances while stranded in transit

Keep adding….....

Global Granny 04.21.10 | 3:06 PM ET

e) Humbling our collective hubris…

f) nudge us to not rely on imported produce in favor of choosing locally grown.

g) The dust helps reduce global warming.

h) Debunks Ian Pilmer’s silly CO2 emissions myth that “One volcanic cough can do this in a day.”:

Frankie 04.21.10 | 4:18 PM ET

Lovely article

Mikeachim 04.22.10 | 6:02 AM ET

Nice work, Eric.

And I couldn’t be more behind no. 4. When alternate land routes are available, an event like this is enforced slow travel.

(And yes, air travel is amazing. As Louis CK said when interviewed by Conan O’Brien - “you’re sitting in a chair…*in the SKY* “.  But it’s also an overland or oversea adventure that didn’t happen. So in the back of my mind I feel like I’m cheating, every time).

Dave 04.22.10 | 10:16 AM ET

Like all crises, it is opportunity to experience the kindness of strangers. I have read many stories of local people opening their homes, providing food etc to stranded travellers.

Peter 04.23.10 | 11:05 AM ET

What a crazy week… I was stuck in Paris for 4 days!

Ok, i can think of many worse places to be ‘stuck’, but still. I have to agree with you Eric, it’s far too easy to take for granted the comforts of our technology and society. (Your comment about airplanes being ‘f***ing miracles’ made me laugh - it really IS mind-boggling! I get that same feeling sometimes when I think about the wizardry behind photographs.)

Oh, and @globalgranny - couchsurfing is definitely an option, but it can be awkward sometimes - you have to spend time chatting with them, when all you’d really like is some peace and quiet. I ended up using trivago to find myself a cheap hotel (had to change rooms twice, though) and saved myself the trouble.


Loco2travel 04.27.10 | 12:36 PM ET

Music to my ears: “Mother Nature gets the last word” and “trains are good” written on the same page! Perhaps this air travel vs volcano battle is a chance for us to reconsider our reliance on aeroplanes. Maybe round 2 will be Airport expansion vs Global Warming…just a thought.

Maybe people will consider some good old fashioned “slow travel” for their next holiday - keep your feet firmly on the ground. Besides which it’s more fun!

Austin Beeman 05.04.10 | 11:00 PM ET

Air travel is truly a miracle.  We are some of the only people in history to ever have this option.  Kings, Queens, Emperors, and rulers of all kinds would have given most anything for one seat in coach.

We are the lucky ones and should hold our tongue before we complain about the minor inconveniences of modern air travel.

axel g 05.06.10 | 1:01 PM ET

That’s right, if the weather isn’t good enough for flying the planes remain on the ground…

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