Crisis in the clouds

As Freedom goes to press, another ash cloud from Eyjafjallajokull is drifting towards British airspace, shutting airports and provoking outrage from airline bosses. No matter how much money Sir Richard Branson is losing, or how loudly he complains that airport closures due to ash are “beyond a joke”, capital (or the lack thereof) can’t alter the laws of physics. This new wave of airline groundings follow the emergency landings of two Ryanair jets bound for London on 9 May.


Moments after both flights took off from Belfast City Airport an acrid odour filled the cabins, and the pilots opted to immediately return to the airport. Ryanair initially claimed the jets were afflicted with separate mechanical problems, completely unrelated to volcanic ash. However, only 24 hours later the airline admitted that siliceous ash was found glued inside the engines. Despite the landings, Ryanair assures future passengers that there is “no risk and no cause for concern”.

This public concern for passengers is undermined by allegations that the airline illegally left people stranded during 6 days of airport closures in April, refusing to pay for lodging, food, or alternative transport. In defense of the company’s actions, Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary declared that “the laws weren’t designed for these circumstances”. As the entire Eyjafjallajokull debacle demonstrates, laws are enforced only when they direct cash into the pockets of the rich, otherwise they cause “unnecessary damage to the UK economy”. Richard Branson is not alone in his condemnation of airport closures, troubled British Airlines’ 16 May statement that “airlines are best placed to take the final decisions on whether or not it is safe to fly” echoes the sentiment of an industry desperate to preserve profit. On 16 May, alongside cries from British Airlines and EasyJet for the UK Civil Aviation Authority to lower safety standards regarding volcanic ash, news broke that British Airlines expects a record annual loss of £600 million.

Eyjafjallajokull isn’t the only force grounding British Airways’ fleet. Cabin crew have balloted to walk out on 17 May in the first of four four-day strikes over jobs and working practices. The airline is petitioning the High Court to rule the strike illegal. British Airlines exemplifies that air transport is an industry that has grown to unsustainable proportions in the current economic, social and environmental climate. The complicity of corporate concerns and government regulation are apparent in the similar strategies deployed against worker unrest and impersonal atmospheric ash: reform the legal goalposts. Unite is adamant that workers will not be easily placated, and Eyjafjallajokull is indifferent to regulation.

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