Simon Calder: High drama is a battle of competing interests

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The Independent Online

Every compelling drama has conflict at its root. You may mistakenly have concluded that the latest ash clash pits pilots and holidaymakers against volcanoes.

The real battle is between agendas. Each player has a wishlist. And they are all in opposition.

In the grey corner: the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The officials who are charged with the keeping the skies safe will naturally err on the side of caution. Last year, one official voice even insisted on the need for "complete safety" – which equates to no flying – and raised grumbles among some usual airline suspects about CAA standing for the Campaign Against Aviation. But earlier this month the CAA cited a study by Icelandic and Danish scientists that, it claims, vindicates the closure of much of northern Europe's airspace.

In another grey corner: the Government, which is keen not to make such an indigestible meal of the ash as the last lot. During the first ash crisis, it took days for the government to realise that what had begun as an inconvenience had degenerated into a humanitarian crisis. With the election campaign in full swing, the over-reaction in sending warships and fleets of coaches to Spain, just as the problem drifted away, would have been hilarious if were it not so expensive.

The Conservatives have realised that volcanic eruptions are as impossible to control as Liberal Democrats. With re-election at the top of the Tories' agenda, they have concluded that managing expectations is the best policy: "Get used to it," was the basic message from the Transport Secretary Philip Hammond.

The third grey corner is occupied by some anxious and angry airline bosses. Their agenda is to stay in business. They know that the odd losses of £5m or so, as yesterday cost, are nothing compared with the longer-term financial damage. They are already losing all the valuable last-minute, high-fare sales to business travellers.

Worse still, the industry still has heaps of capacity to sell for summer to people who have not yet chosen a holiday. The airlines had hoped that the commitment-phobics would be making their travel decisions now, but instead see potential customers opting for ferries, trains or the back garden.

Naturally, airline executives want to keep disruption to a minimum. Not only must they pay out to keep holidaymakers by the pool in the Canaries or Crete until they can be brought home – they know that every wrecked holiday represents a family that won't be booking again in a hurry. Neither will the anxious fliers who see an industry in disarray, with Michael O'Leary, the boss of Europe's biggest airline, engaged in a media dogfight with authorities in the world centre of aviation, London.

You can tell the fourth grey corner – it's the one with all the passengers uncomfortably packed in. Our agenda is uncomplicated: to take delivery of the product that we ordered and paid for weeks or months ahead of time, in the form of safe and timely transportation. A simple wish, but one that is in danger of being trampled in the complex choreography of regulators, politicians and airlines.

British travellers are reasonable: we accepted ash crisis V.1 and came back for more. But the almighty muddle of V.2 makes us fearful of our future travel plans. Much of the value of any holiday is the anticipation. When that is replaced by apprehension, our aspirations dwindle.

I hope I am wrong – but I fear that this unhappy episode may dampen our dreams and demand for future travel. If that happens, the aviation industry will shrink and fares will rise – and our wishlists will be smothered beneath a grey blanket.