Volcanic ash: 'Nature can still scupper the best-laid plans'

THERE has been something quite surreal about the volcanic ash crisis which brought much of the world's transport system to a halt.

Just when we thought we could leap around the globe with impunity, this was a timely reminder that nature can still scupper the best-laid plans of men.

The timing, in fact, could not have been worse for many people – and not just those stranded while enjoying a foreign Easter break. Our politicians have been caught out too.

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That the impact of the crisis in Britain would become an election issue was as inevitable as the backlash which started on Sunday, with experts questioning whether or not the suspension of almost all air travel was truly necessary.

Today, as we start what will be the slow process of getting things back to some degree of normality, the questions are growing in intensity.

The first passenger planes in five days took off from and landed at Edinburgh Airport this morning, bringing relief for some passengers. But the backlog of those stuck abroad or waiting to leave the UK is in the hundreds of thousands.

There is a strong chance that airspace will be open only briefly, as another ash cloud heads south east from Iceland. Meanwhile, the cost to the economy in Edinburgh alone is feared to be in the hundreds of millions of pounds.

The airlines are said to be losing around 50 million a day, which prompted many test flights including one involving Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways.

Generally, those tests suggested the risk to aircraft engines was not as great as feared, and today's – possibly temporary – all-clear for flights to resume followed.

But as the slow and laborious task of moving the northern hemisphere's travellers to where they want to be begins, the political ramifications will continue.

Frankly, the government did not have a good crisis. Gordon Brown did not lead from the front, and the decision to send Royal Navy ships to Spain may yet prove to be a meaningless pre-election stunt.

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But this was a worldwide problem – 20 European countries shut down their airspace, not just Britain. It was also entirely unforeseeable.

So those who have been critical of the authorities should ask themselves one question: what would have been the reaction had they taken no action or relaxed the ban after a day or so – and even one aircraft fell from the skies?