Monday, April 19, 2010

Europeans don’t get to heaven

Both Crane and Matten are in Europe right now. And witnessing one of the most severe disruption of airtravel since 9/11.

The closure of large parts of the European airspace has caused a lot of havoc here. Eurepean cities are full of stranded passengers and there is no train and no bus left to take them home. Even the German Chancellor or her Defense Minister had to put up with a 3 day hitchike from Lisbon and Istanbul, respectively. What a democratizing catastrophe, we are all in it together...

What is instructive about this incident is that this little volcano in small Iceland had such far reaching impacts. This place did not only start the ‘Financial Crisis’ recently, but now puts Europe out of the game. In the first chapter of our book we essentialise globalization as ‘deterritorialisation’ – and we know, its a hell of a term. But this situation makes it evident. Cheap, reliable and easy air travel has made territory irrelevant – where to relax, where to do business or where to celebrate your wedding. It can all happen wherever desired. Unless – the key driver of this globalising movement defaults. Such as airtravel (it might as well be the internet, or cars or trains, you get the picture).

But there is another edge to the case. Lufthansa, British Airways and other airlines as of yesterday have disputed the closing of the airspace. Of course, they are losing a lot of money. The closing of the airspace was based on governmental restrictions. But as it turns out, it was based on rather limited information. Just the simulations of one agency. It all amounts to the assessment of the risk. So BA and Lufthansa ran their own assessments by sending up planes into the sky.

It all points to the ethics of risk assessment. Plane crashes are considered as ‘low risk’ but ‘high impact’ catastrophes. And further, they are risks on which the individual has no influence. If the plane goes down, you have no way to influence the result. So the perceived impact of a potential air crash is much higher than, say, a road accident. This explains why governments all over Europe take these precautions, just to avoid the one air disaster that could happen if planes continued flying. As the German Transport Minister put it, defending his decisions against attacks by Lufthansa, he would never allow "the risk to passengers' life and limb to be offset against loss of revenue."

It will be interesting to see how long this view will be governing the policies of European governments. Not only the airlines loose an estimated €150m/day but supply chains are disrupted and shortages of some foods are already visible. With more palpable consequences the assessment of the necessary precautions will certainly change. After all most governments in Europe which ban flying are very happy to run nuclear power stations or other high risk technologies.

Photo by Pylon757 reproduced under the Creative Commons License.

1 comment:

  1. Re: "After all most governments in Europe which ban flying are very happy to run nuclear power stations or other high risk technologies."
    Surely this should be high impact, not high risk - were it high risk, the power stations would not be allowed!


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