Can we do without air traffic?

Travelers and businesses are waking up to a fourth day of no air traffic in Europe, and a fourth day of stranded air passengers seeking whatever means they can find to reach their destination, or reaching any place between where they are stuck and where they were supposed to go. As I said in my post yesterday, perhaps it’s time to re-learn the value of slow travel, and perhaps we don’t need to go anywhere as fast as possible or have our goods delivered in an instant. If this lasts on, it may lead to a change in our way of thinking. Seriously, what would happen if this supply chain disruption because of the volcanic ash cloud were to go on for a week, a month, a year?

What if?

As I said yesterday

…what if this goes on for a prolonged period, say weeks or months of intermittent air traffic restrictions? Will we change our travel behavior? Will we start valuing slow travel again, like it used to be in the old days, before the aeroplane came? Will business meetings be replaced by teleconferencing and videoconferencing and will we perhaps realize that we do not need this face-to-face meeting that much? Maybe we really don’t need to be a able get every where in just a matter of hours? Or having our cargo delivered asap? As we say in Norway, “Nothing is so bad that it is not good for something”.

So, what do you think will happen? Can there be any good from this?

One week, one month, one year?

The German newspaper Die Welt has an interesting, semi-humorous post about this, Was passiert, wenn die Wolke viel länger bleibt?, where they look at the possible impacts of a volcano ash cloud scenario that lasts one week, one month and one year. While perhaps a bit too much on the funny side to take it seriouly, it is still worth pondering.

One week

The first week is marked by “postponement” in hope that things will improve. Business issues and decisions that were urgent and absolutely imperative last week, are being reexamined. Even private matters that need to be solved are perhaps not so important just right now.

Businesses that are highly dependent on the smooth flow of incoming and outgoing flows are likely to be split in two. On one side, the lean and just-in-time followers who suddenly see the full impact of their business philosophies, on the other side the sceptics and safety-stock champions, who are just shrugging their shoulders in a “I told you so”-manner. Exotic food import may be among the businesses to be hit hard.

The maintenance engineer who was supposed to fly in on the day of the airspace lock-down is now not coming, and while that may not affect a business that maintains its machinery in an exemplary manner, if machines do break down because the plant manager had procrastinated any maintenance for fear of cost overrun, we can expect to see heads beginning to roll.

Soon people will start to ask about the promised red sunsets, or are anxiously awaiting the volcanic ash cloud fallout, fearing for their cars more than the soil…at first. People will have something to talk about and perhaps feel a new sense of community with strangers and foreigners who are  forced to stay over in their city, and may feel a common comfort in the fact this is a crisis that affects us all.

Basically, in the beginning, it’s still a bit of fun, as travelers and business are using their creativity to solve the immediate issue of how to get from here to there. Ingeniously, someone has already set a website catering specifically to travelers needs:

One month

After one month this isn’t so much fun anymore. “Forced to adapt” is the keyword. While some businesses are likely to survive by developing new routines, others will not be so lucky, and bankruptcies will make headlines daily. Trains and ferries are less overcrowded, as service providers have added more capacity; in addition people have sought alternative means of travel in a more planned way or even canceled their trips altogether. Holiday plans are changed, and people are increasingly discovering long lost treasures in their immediate vicinity to replace their faraway last-minute city breaks.

Face-to-face business meetings are now done by web meetings and videoconferencing, or simply canceled, as the travel restrictions are an excellent opportunity or excuse for cost cutting.

Travel restrictions also provide an opportunity to make extra money. At first, the hotels that had to accommodate hordes of stranded travelers were the ones making extra profit as they could increase their prices thanks to supply and demand, now other hotels are able to follow: Business travel, previously often going forth and back on the same day, now often requires an overnight stay, or even two, leading to a long-needed boost for many hotels.

Trade unions will start to protest against the massive layoffs that by now have hit the airline industry, and businesses will start to lobby their government for bailouts and special subsidies.

The weather forecast, before the cloud coming after the news on TV are now headline news and the first message of the day, and soon the first measurements will tell us that the global temperature has had a minuscule decrease, leading to wild ideas of initiating volcano eruptions to stop global warming or scaremongers predicting a new ice age.

Experts and so-called experts will increasingly start to debate whether the situation will have long-term health impacts, and special research programs are devised and established in a hurry to follow particularly vulnerable portions of the public.

One year

Change has come to stay, and “the exception is now the rule”. The long-term effects of the volcanic ash cloud on the economy are clearly visible and previously upheld economic truths and management philosophies are under attack. In particular, the risks of  “Just-in-Time” or “Lean Logistics” have become  obvious, and motorways have become clogged again, with items that customers expect to see arriving on time, despite the fact that they simply can not anymore. Even with trucks, nothing works properly.

Car owners (or any businesses for that matter) are increasingly tired of waiting several weeks for spare parts that before were in place the same day or after a day or two, or going even further back, in the days before Lean, were stocked in the warehouse down the road. The downside of global sourcing shows its true face.

Businesses, now accustomed to the new ways of videoconferencing and webmeeting are beginning to realize this is how they will go about most of their meetings even after the air traffic restrictions are lifted, giving this new technology the final breakthrough that so far had been delayed by inertia. Virtual teams will be the order of the day.

Some previously relegated technologies are experiencing a new renaissance. A Europe-wide network of  “Maglev”-trains is suddenly not so unthinkable anymore.  Cruiseship owners are considering re-introducing or already operating transatlantic crossings, as in the good old days. Not only freight, but passengers too will perhaps resort to “slow steaming”.

The debate over health concerns has abated almost completely as scaremongers and experts realize and research shows that people who live in daily contact with volcanoes, e.g. in South-East Asia are no less healthy than their European counterparts.

Even cloudseeding or “rainmaking” attempts are undertaken, as it turns out that the ash has a fertilizing affect on the soil. As such, the ash that was cursed a year ago, is now a gift from heaven…from Iceland.

A possible scenario?

Whether this is a true scenario or not, I’m sure that the volcanic ash cloud that is hanging over us will lead to the re-examination of many currently held beliefs and customs and established ways of doing things, even in business relationships and supply chain management. Perhaps a necessary change, many will say.

Related stories

Another version, and perhaps more sound, can be found on the website: What if the volcano disruption lasts weeks, months? Two more reflections on the same site: How could the Europe Volcano scenario play out? and Volcano impacts markets far beyond airlines.



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