I certainly join with others in the last few days, as we rejoice over the fact that nature has yet again showed its supremacy over humanity and its machinations, its advanced technology and civilization. The volcanic ash spreading from Iceland has halted air traffic all over North-Western Europe, a massive disruption of modern human activity. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, United Kingdom, Germany, Finland, Russia, France Belgium and the Netherlands have so far been affected, such a fairly small, common event, really, more than sufficient to put a major dent in people’s belief in civilization’s invulnerability.
This is how it should always be. There should be no metal deathbirds flying the airwaves, no poison-spitting engines, either in the air or on the ground or at sea ruining the air and soil and all life on Earth. Hopefully the worst case scenario will come true: that the volcano will spit even bigger amounts of ash for years.
For decades they have been deafened by the roar of low-flying aircraft whizzing in and out of neighbouring Heathrow. But yesterday, for the first time in 25 years, residents of Hatton, a suburb in south-west London, woke up to the glorious sound of silence.
“It’s a historic moment,” grinned data manager Peter Smith, 42, as he relaxed in the beer garden of his local pub, the Green King. “This is the first time I’ve been able to sit here and have a quiet drink outside in the afternoon.” His colleague John Marshall, 48, agreed: “Normally it’s not a very pleasant place to be. The beer usually shakes. But today it’s actually quite relaxing.”
On average, 1,300 planes fly in and out of Heathrow’s five terminals every day – a flight every one or two minutes. At the Green King, which is directly under several flight paths, this made for stilted banter. Vanessa Bradley, 37, a financial adviser sitting at a neighbouring table, explained: “You’d have to pause your conversation for about 10 seconds every minute or two. Or you had to learn to lipread really, really well. Now we can actually hear what everyone’s saying.”
Bradley herself was celebrating with brio. “I love it!” she exclaimed, as she punched the air with both fists. “It’s just so peaceful. When I got home from work yesterday, I could just sit in my garden and enjoy a bit of quiet for once.”
Meanwhile, up the road at St George’s church in Hanworth, a clergyman was also smiling. “It’s a temporary relief because whenever we have low-flying planes,” said Father Paul Williamson, 61, “I get really worried about our medieval stained glass windows getting damaged by the sonic waves. The reverberations are usually a serious problem.” The flight situation has also had unexpected spiritual benefits. “Though you should always be able to pray at any time,” Father Williamson said, “prayer is always better without all the noise.”
Even the footballers at the local club, Bedfont FC, are pleased. Grant Mullins, 27, the club’s steward, noted: “When a plane’s flying over the pitch, you usually can’t hear much. But the players will have heard the ref’s whistle a lot better in the match last night.” Indeed, Bedfont went on to thrash league rivals Horley Town 4-1.
Back at the Green King, however, not everyone was happy. Clare Applegarth, 38, a colleague of Bradley’s, was shaking her head at the day’s events. “To be honest, I miss the planes. It was always quite exciting when they came over. And when you’re working, you get so used to them that they don’t cause a problem.”
Lewis Smith, 25, was similarly unimpressed. “My aunt was supposed to be flying out yesterday,” he explained, frowning. “She had one flight cancelled then, and another cancelled today. It’s an absolute nightmare.”
But Farzana Rafique, 43, a childminder, summed up the overall mood of the town as she returned home from Hatton Cross tube. “It’s just been a relief. Everyone usually gets a bit irritated by the noise, but I’ve noticed that people have been a bit calmer today. It’s made a difference to me, at least.”
The no-fly zone across much of Britain after Iceland‘s huge volcanic eruption this week is set to remain in force over the weekend, placing yet more strain on road, rail and ferry networks already struggling to cope with thousands of stranded passengers.
Lord Adonis, the transport secretary, who met officials at the Civil Aviation Authority, Met Office, and National Air Traffic Services today, said: “It is likely that significant disruption to most UK air services will continue for at least the next 48 hours”.
Few, if any flights, are expected over the weekend in England and Wales and the shutdown could carry into next week. Tonight Ryanair cancelled all flights in the area until at least 1pm Monday, citing weather trends that show little sign of blowing the plume away.
The ash cloud continued to hang over England and Wales today, held steady by high pressure.
The verdict from Adonis was the most bleak assessment yet of the impact of the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on British air travel. Senior officials from National Air Traffic Services (Nats) said the Met Office was continuing to meet every six hours to update the restrictions and was trying to find even the smallest window to get flights in and out.
Shortly after noon today, Manchester airport opened for 30 minutes, then closed again. One flight from Barbados and another from Vancouver landed, while a plane took off for Sanford in Florida in readiness to return stranded holidaymakers when airspace opened again. The break in the ash cloud was so short that there was no time for any passengers to board the plane.
A handful of flights did leave Prestwick airport, and restrictions across much of Scotland‘s airspace were lifted at 7pm tonight after the ash cloud drifted south. Nats added that there might be an opportunity for some flights to operate soon from the north into Newcastle.
“Even if there is a hole, say for example over Cardiff, there could still be areas of volcanic ash beyond that which makes opening the air space unsafe,” said Deborah Seymour, a spokeswoman for Nats. “It is a complicated and constantly changing picture. We want to get UK airspace open as soon as we can, but it is our priority to ensure safety.”
Fine sulphurous ash fell across the Shetland Islands coating cars, and many residents reported sore throats after venturing outside. A coastguard rescue helicopter had to mount a risky mission to ferry a seriously ill patient on the Out Skerries islands to hospital in Lerwick through the ash cloud. The helicopter returned coated in the fine glass-like dust.
North-westerly winds today continued to spread the vast plume, closing yet more European airspace in Germany, Poland and as far east as Russia. Europe‘s skies were becalmed with just 11,000 flights today , compared with 28,000 on a normal day.
Almost two-thirds of all transatlantic flights into European airports were cancelled and authorities shut down airspace over France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Belgium. As the cloud moved east, flights were halted at Frankfurt, Europe’s third-busiest airport, and at 10 other German airports.
In Iceland, the volcano continued to erupt, but volcanologists said was it less explosive than at the beginning of the eruption on Wednesday, which blasted glassy abrasive ash, destructive to aeroplane jet engines, eight miles into the sky. The plume was now rising to a height of just three miles, and the volcanologists said this would deposit ash only in Iceland and in the surrounding waters. It was not high enough to travel thousands of miles across Britain and the rest of Europe.
Matthew Roberts, a glaciologist at the Iceland Meteorological Office, said they had not ruled out further big blasts but added: “There is currently no new material being added to the ash stream affecting aviation in Europe.”
He also played down fears that Katla, a neighbouring larger volcano in Iceland, to the east of Eyjafjallajökull, could be stirred into life.
“There is a historical and geological linkage of Eyjafjallajökull erupting together with Katla, but we don’t see any measurable evidence that a larger and more hazardous eruption is due,” he said.
Airlines have been counting the cost of the stoppages, with analysts estimating that British Airways was losing £10m a day. The International Air Transport Association said European airlines were together losing $200m a day. “It could not come at a worse time for the industry,” a spokesman for IATA said.
“European airlines have been the hardest hit financially, facing $2.2bn losses this year. This is going to make a difficult situation worse.”
Stena Line, the ferry company, said it carried 5,000 extra passengers to Ireland, and P&O cross-Channel ferries said they were fully booked until Monday. Every Eurostar train was full today, carrying more than 46,000 passengers.
Network Rail had cancelled some engineering works to allow train operators to run more services over the weekend, particularly on the east and west coast main lines and on routes to the channel ports.
A group of business people paid a taxi driver £700 to take them from Belfast to London after they became stranded. Some were medics who needed to get home to see their patients, said Joe Duffy, the driver. He arrived back at Belfast port this afternoon after spending 24 hours on the road, covering a distance 869 miles. “It is only once in a lifetime you get a job like that,” he said. “You have to keep the wheels going.”