The capitulation, when finally it arrived, happened at breathtaking speed. At 8pm on Tuesday evening, when most of the skies over Europe had been declared safe despite the presence of tiny particles of volcanic ash, National Air Traffic Services (NATS) maintained it was unsafe to land at Britain's airports.
For Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways, this stance was rather inconvenient. That morning, he had instructed the captains of 28 wide-bodied Boeings scattered across Asia, Africa and the Americas to file flight plans for London – even though the UK skies were firmly closed. (As with any flight plan, the pilots had declared plenty of alternate airports should they need to divert.)
By this stage, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) – the arbiter of safety in the skies of Britain – appeared to be in a minority of one in its attitude to ash. The presence of any volcanic particles, it insisted, required all flights to be grounded and millions of passengers inconvenienced. Air-traffic providers in Continental Europe had already adopted the much less stringent American limits and re-opened the skies. But NATS was saying to BA, in effect, "We told you your planes couldn't land here, now go away".
The evening unfolded into travel at its most theatrical. By 9pm, the ash cloud was still hovering over our heads – but had suddenly become less dangerous. The chairman of the CAA declared that new guidelines meant airports on the British mainland were free to open: in effect, "Come on down".
The sound of goalposts moving was soon augmented by the engines of a procession of 747s flying to Heathrow. By 10pm, the passengers from BA84 from Vancouver were stepping off the aircraft at Terminal 5.
The recriminations began almost at once and will continue for many months as the airlines demand answers from the authorities about the blanket closure of airspace. As well as being economically disastrous for Britain, the shutdown precipitated emotional carnage: you will have heard plenty of stories of anxiety and upset as weddings and funerals were missed, operations cancelled, and families separated by thousands of miles with no information on when they might be reunited.
Who's to blame? Responsibility will ultimately be assigned to some vague haze of officialdom in the skies above Europe. No doubt everyone involved in this sorry affair believes they acted in what they imagined to be the traveller's best interests. But much of the grief was caused by some fundamental misunderstandings of air travel – and risk. Add in politicians at home and abroad wishing to look good, and you have a recipe for chaos.
Travel, like life, is about risk management. Flying is far safer than travelling by road. Britain has the best aviation record in the world over the past 20 years, thanks to an obsession with safety on the part of pilots, air-traffic controllers and engineers. But there are limits, which were overstepped this week by a spokesman for the aviation regulators who insisted that only "complete safety" was acceptable. The only way to achieve zero risk: ground all flights, forever. If we all switch to cars, the increase in risk to us, and other road users, increases dramatically. This was the week of travelling dangerously.
"Complete safety" is a laudable but unachievable aim. To suggest otherwise gives credence to the assertion among some pilots that CAA actually stands for "Campaign Against Aviation".
After the ash cloud we're all at sea
As travellers straggle home to hyper-inflated credit-card and astronomical mobile-phone bills, today Independent Traveller celebrates the forms of transport that many have forgotten in the era of cheap air travel: trains in Africa, ferries around Europe and North Sea freighters (plus an honourable 48 Hours in San Francisco, which has the best public transport in America). In a week when Madrid airport became the new Heathrow, arguably Calais became the new Gatwick: on Tuesday morning, the Foreign Secretary urged stranded Brits to head for Calais, and assured GMTV viewers that the Government had deployed extra ferries from Dover.
In fact, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency had increased allowable passenger numbers by 10 per cent on daylight sailings. That concession expired an hour after sunset last night – by which time I hope the vast majority of British travellers are where they yearn to be.Reuse content