Air rage

When we awoke on Thursday morning to the news that flights across northern Europe had been grounded because of a cloud of ash from an erupting  Icelandic volcano, nobody was quite sure what to think. It was inconvenient, certainly, but it was also kind of exciting. Invisible volcanic ash in the sky!

For a couple of days, the radio news switched between election stories and volcano stories, and somebody (I thought it was Jon Snow on Twitter, but I can’t find a reference) pointed out how unusual it was for a news story this big to have nothing to do with any human agency; with nobody knowing or able to affect what would happen next. There were mutterings about the might of mother nature.

Then, yesterday, broadcasters got bored of talking about nature and decided they needed somebody to blame. A representative from an airline was invited on to the radio to explain that his colleagues had been running test flights all weekend, and the planes had been coming back unharmed. A presenter on the Today programme (I was a bit asleep, so I’m not sure who, sorry) crossly asked Lord Adonis (the transport secretary, not a classical superhero) why UK airspace wasn’t open yet, if it was safe to fly. Lord Adonis explained that the Met Office’s test flights, identical to the airlines’ except that they had instruments with which to measure the density and distribution of volcanic ash in the atmosphere, showed that it was not yet safe to send planes up. This morning, the programme was asking whether the government had mishandled events and acted too hastily in banning all flights.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be stranded than dead. Air travel is one of the areas in which it’s never ever OK not to err on the side of caution, and were flights to be allowed in and out of the UK sooner than expected, the same sniping presenters and pressmen would have been asking whether the government had acted too hastily in allowing flights and putting travellers’ safety at risk.

So they can’t win. And I am once again faintly depressed by the press’s need to automatically challenge every decision the authorities make, just for the sake of it. Challenge political decisions by all means, or at least ask for them to be explained. But nobody has acted with anything other than good and honest intentions here. The various meteorologists, engineers and elected representatives whose responsibility it is to come up with a plan have been in constant discussions since this thing started, and personally I am happy to assume that (a) they know their jobs better than I do, and (b) none of them has a vested interest in wrecking the livelihoods of airline workers or in sending unwitting air passengers on flights of doom.

Unfortunately the Today programme isn’t designed to give us information so much as to create controversy where none exists, so this story has become a fight when it didn’t need to.

Of course, there are thousands of people undergoing inconvenience and expense because they’re stuck somewhere they don’t want to be, and the effect on some businesses is potentially huge, and there are people missing weddings and funerals, and maybe not getting home in time to see someone before they die. It’s not any fun. But although as individuals we feel a sense of injustice when bad things happen to us for no reason, as a society we need to be able to see that there is no reason, rather than desperately seeking a scapegoat. And the press, especially the publicly funded and accountable BBC, has a duty not to succumb to hysteria, but to take a measured view of what the situation actually is.

On a more selfish note, I find myself entranced by the sight of a London sky without vapour trails. As it happens we are having an unusually clear and dry April, so the effect is even more pronounced. The sky above Brixton has never looked like this in my lifetime, and it probably never will again:

(Sorry for slightly crappy photo, it was taken with my slightly crappy phone.)