The volcanic eruption at Eyjafjallajokull is hardly a human disaster on the scale of the earthquake that shattered Haiti just months ago or the Indian Ocean tsunami that wreaked havoc across a wide swathe of Southeast Asia in 2004. A thin layer of fine volcanic ash isn't enough to grind the world to a halt.
Rich European societies are resilient, and the many thousands of international travelers stranded in Britain and elsewhere generally have the resources they need to get by. Indeed, a handful of the social entrepreneurs and philanthropists gathered at this year's Skoll World Forum in Oxford assembled an impromptu TEDxVolcano conference for those stranded, a crafty way to capitalize on the assembled brainpower. For some of the volcano refugees, at least, the unexpectedly long layover has proved a kind of magical interlude from lives built on constant, frantic movement.
Yet for those with loved ones stuck half a world away, the cascade of cancellations has been a poignant reminder of the frailty not only of our air-travel system, but of a way of life that depends on it. Eventually, the volcanic ash shooting up from Iceland and into the upper atmosphere will dissipate, and those beautiful aluminum tubes in the sky will go back to doing what they do best.
The trouble is that the incredible mobility to which we, or rather to which a privileged slice of we, have grown accustomed might prove unsustainable. Within the next decade, dozens of major airlines will go bankrupt. The biggest names in the business, like American Airlines, United, Delta, and British Airways, could easily go the way of TWA, leaving JetBlue and Southwest and perhaps Continental to pick up the pieces.
Governments will keep working to keep the biggest, most politically connected airlines afloat, larding new subsidies on top of the old ones. At some point, however, the subsidies will run out and the high price of aviation fuel will prove too much to bear. Cheap air travel, a force that has knit together families scattered across continents, could very well be remembered as a happy but brief respite from the historical norm of a world divided by distance. And the world will be poorer for it.
Last year, Forbes correspondent Christopher Steiner published $20 Per Gallon, a brilliant and imaginative look at how the world will be shaped by soaring fuel prices. Though aviation fuel is very different from the gasoline used to power your automobile, the prices are tightly linked. The same barrel of low-sulfur oil is refined into a variety of different products, including aviation fuel and gasoline and much else besides. So when gas prices hit $4 per gallon in 2008, the price of aviation fuel became an extraordinary 40% of the cost of running an airline, up from 13% in 2003. Steiner predicts that gas prices will rise relentlessly, hence the alarming title of his book.
But even if you're a peak oil skeptic and you're convinced that new discoveries will save us, there's no getting around the fact that jet travel has environmental costs that governments will, sooner or later, try to internalize through the use of even heavier fuel surcharges.
And new sources of fossil fuels, from the tar sands or natural gas reserves, will require expensive new refining methods or perhaps even new engines, and the workhorses of our air-travel fleet have been in service for years if not decades. The retrofitting process is expensive, and even the most advanced passenger aircraft, like the Boeing 787, boost fuel efficiency by about 20%--an impressive number, but we'd need efficiency to double or triple to keep air-travel as cheap as it is today.
If this all sounds terribly abstract, Steiner paints a vivid picture: cross-country fares quintupling in price, mid-sized cities losing most or all of their flights as subsidies dry up and the remaining airlines consolidate their operations. We'll always have Skype and as-yet-unimagined communications technologies to stay in touch over long distances. And who knows, perhaps these technologies will be good enough to maintain the intimate connections that cheap air-travel has made possible. I certainly wouldn't bet on it.
So could there be an upside to a world in which we're all very nearly as stranded as the volcano refugees? Some envision new, environmentally friendly transportation technologies--magnetic-levitation trains, algae-based biofuels powering enormous airships, nuclear cruise-ships, just to name a few--taking the place of jet-travel, trading a big sacrifice in speed for a big gain in sustainability. Others see a turn away from nomadic lifestyles and towards greater rootedness, which has a certain appeal.
Another possibility is that the death of air-travel will reinforce other more dangerous trends we see in the global economy, like the turn towards mercantilism and crony capitalism we see in virtually all of the world's major economic powers, whether in the U.S. or Europe or East Asia. As governments seek to protect their national champions against foreign firms, a climate of mutual suspicion has intensified. Cheap air-travel, and global gatherings of the great and the good, do a great deal to build trust and affection and a sense of shared identity. Once that fades, the claws come out.
Far from a fluke, Eyjafjallajokull has given us a possible picture of the world to come. And it's not pretty.