Where Has That Plane Been?

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Much has been said, on this blog and elsewhere, about the unimaginable devastation that’s occurred in Japan over the past several days.   However, what no one seemed to anticipate, back on Day 1 of the crisis, was that we’d soon be discussing not natural disasters, but man-made ones; not earthquakes and tsunamis, but a tangible nuclear threat.  From where I sit, it seems that the entire travel community is embarking on a somewhat familiar, though entirely unpredictable moment in time — as the ongoing radiation crisis unfolds, there’s no telling how much of an impact it may have on flights, transportation, accommodations, tourism, and the confidence of travelers themselves.

It’s no longer a question of Mother Nature and unexpected occurrences in the natural world; now that radiation has begun to seep from the reactors and make its way towards Tokyo, there’s a bigger picture to be considered.  Today, reports are circulating that some airlines, such as Lufthansa, are diverting flights away from the radiation and are scanning their planes for levels of radioactivity. Others, like Air France, are moving their personnel away from Japan and finding alternative accommodations for them in other Asian nations.  The Weather Channel and other respected sources of environmental and meteorological news are discussing the potential outcomes of different wind patterns on the path of the radioactive material; how fast it may move, how far it may go, how much impact it may have.  In short, there’s a whole lot of turmoil about to explode on the travel scene, and there’s no way to predict exactly how much disruption there may be.  It’s not as if we’ve ever encountered a situation like this before.

Or have we?

The benefit of past experience may actually be available to travelers, as I step back and look at the whole picture.  It’s not that I can call to mind another recent situation in which a historic earthquake triggered a massive tsunami, wiped out most of a nation, and sparked a series of explosions at a nuclear power plant to boot, spilling radioactive waste into the air.  But from a purely travel-oriented perspective, all this discussion of wind patterns, ominous clouds, and re-routing or grounding of flights to avoid the threat reminds me of something…

Remember Iceland? Remember the volcano of unpronounceable name, which travelers the world over were cursing for weeks on end?  Despite the relatively benign nature of that eruption — which was certainly not of the same tragic magnitude as the events in Japan — global travel was absolutely hog-tied.  With no way to predict where the ash clouds were going next, how a shift in the winds might affect them, where they might settle, or how long they’d linger, flight scheduling went into (pardon the pun) a severe tailspin.

As I’ve noted before in talking about flight schedules, there’s a ripple effect that goes through the entire travel community when even a few flights in one location don’t take off or land according to plan.  When the volcano erupted in Iceland last year, the impact on travel was just short of mass chaos.  How much more significant might the effects be when we’re dealing with clouds not of ash, but of radiation?

Many flights to and from Tokyo are being re-routed to other, more remote airports as we speak; with no end in sight to the nuclear threat to that city, there’s no telling how long that particular hub might be crippled by the radiation.  Now it’s a question not only of flights originating in or terminating at Tokyo — it’s also a concern for all the flights connecting THROUGH Tokyo.  Can they be re-routed effectively?  It’s almost certain that they’ll be affected at the other points of arrival and departure on their round-trip journeys; so travelers in L.A. or Vancouver or New Zealand will find themselves caught in the quagmire that arises when a whole hub is weakened or effectively eradicated from service.  And as the radiation cloud moves, over the next days or weeks, the path it takes and the speed at which it travels will determine the viability of air travel to and from any number of major cities.

All of this, by the way, is to say nothing of traveler confidence.  Not only are we facing a possible Iceland-like travel industry shutdown, but we’re facing something far more disconcerting than ash.  This is not a quirky volcano from a charming country, with a distinctly amusing name; there’s no good humor to be gleaned from the events in Japan.  While no one, last year, likely worried about whether or not the flight they finally did board had originated in Iceland, it’s almost certain that travelers will be concerned this time around about the origins of their aircraft.  Lufthansa’s decision to scan their Japanese planes for radiation levels speaks volumes about this subject. It’s fair, I think, to ask ourselves the question: would we eat pretzels on an airplane that might be carrying some level of radioactivity?  And if that airplane were set to take us to a destination somewhere that might end up — through a shift in the wind currents — directly in the path of the nuclear cloud, would we even go in the first place?

I don’t know what the next days, weeks, or months will bring as the whole world continues to breathlessly watch these terrible events unfold. In an ongoing crisis of this magnitude, there’s no way to predict exactly what might transpire.  But I do think there will be a large-scale ripple effect felt throughout the travel industry, and that travelers everywhere will have to be braced for unpredictability for quite some time to come.

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