Air Travel in the Wake of the Volcano

This has been quite a week. Unable to travel to the United States  I missed a dinner by the Hungarian American Coalition in honor of former New York Governor George Pataki, a good Hungarian-American. I was supposed to escort 45 young Europeans and Americans through a program called  "Europe meets America," an effort to bring the youths of America and Europe closer. I had to skip an event by the Tom Lantos Foundation on freedom of the press in the Middle East on Capitol Hill. Of course, I also had to cancel a number of meetings with some of my friends, among them Mark Palmer, the former U.S. ambassador to Hungary and my hero in the diplomatic profession. Also, I was forced to miss meetings at the Atlantic Council, and with some leading journalists.

This is not name dropping. This is part of one single person's agenda for a short visit to America to strengthen ties. This is a result of the chaotic mess in the European airspace following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano on Iceland.

A transportation economist by training, I was shocked by the lack of  coordinated efforts to minimize the effects of the interruption in air traffic within Europe and across the Atlantic. Tens of thousands were stranded at airports all over the world.

The blame game began immediately. The private sector pointed fingers at the lame European Union, saying that it was lack of leadership which lead to the chaos. Airlines were pushing for the opening of the airspace quickly while governments dithered. Too much national authority, not enough courage, the airlines said.

Eurocontrol, the EU organization which manages our airspace, was cautious. Look at the United States, the critics cried! It would never have taken so long!

There will be lessons drawn from the experience. The European Commission will adopt new directives; there will probably be a union-wide investigation; and the governments will most probably bail out the airlines, who will in return blame all their losses on the Icelanders.

Next time around, we will have to be better prepared.

However, we shouldn't jump to conclusions too quickly. We Europeans are spoiled brats. We just can’t imagine something like this happening to us. While we feel sorry for the rest of the world, our societies have had it too good and too safe for too long. The same people who urged the early opening of the airspace would have sued the governments for the loss of lives had there been a single catastrophe as a result of damage to the airplanes. And thank God the leaders in Europe chose to protect life and not bend to pressure. It is right that human life comes first. And we should stick to that principle and not forget that this is the backbone of our values in our free and democratic societies.