Thankfully, there aren’t often opportunities to see what modern life would be like without air transport. The 2010 Icelandic volcano caused a week-long disruption of air traffic in Europe, and resulted in 10 million passengers being affected, and a cost to the global economy of $5 billion.

On 14 April 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted with an ash plume that rose over three kilometres and, with the help of winds, blew across much of Europe’s airspace. It provides a useful study of how modern life might be impacted without aviation.

  • Around 10 million passengers were disrupted and over 100,000 flights cancelled during the entire period of disruption.
  • Total disruption at its peak meant just under a third of total global air traffic capacity was affected.
  • The visitor spending impact realised by destinations around the world has been estimated at $1.6 billion in lost revenues, primarily to the hospitality sector.
  • International trade was also severely disrupted as a result of the flight restrictions — particularly for perishable goods and for just-in-time production processes (e.g. high-value items which are also low-weight such as electronic parts and machine components).

Following the massive airspace shutdown in the first week, another 5,000 flights were sporadically cancelled. This added an additional 5% to the first week’s impacts, bringing the total cost to $5 billion lost GDP between 15 April and 24 May 2010.

International trade was severely disrupted as a result of the flight restrictions. While some of the disrupted trade can be deferred, that is not the case for products that are either fast perishing (fresh-cut flowers, vegetables such as green beans, exotic fruit) or crucial for just-in-time production processes (high-value items which are also low-weight such as electronic parts and machine components).

The impact on producers of flowers and fruit and vegetables in African countries such as Kenya, Zambia and Ghana was widely reported, with delays in transportation meaning large quantities of fast-perishing produce rotted, leading to losses for producers. World Bank president Robert Zoellick stated that African countries lost $65 million due to the effect of the airspace shutdown on perishable exports. Exports of flowers to Europe are also important to South America, costing producers around $3 million due to the destruction.

In total, $48 billion of electrical and machine parts and equipment were supplied to the rest of the world from European producers in 2009. For example, the Korea International Trade Association has stated that losses for domestic industries between April 16 and 19 were an estimated $112 million, with suppliers of mobile phones and semi-conductors the hardest hit. Car production lines in Europe and Asia suspended production as crucial components were unable to make it to the factories.