Page last updated at 15:20 GMT, Friday, 16 April 2010 16:20 UK

Iceland volcano: Airlines face 'logistical nightmare'

By Richard Anderson
Business reporter, BBC News

People stand in front of an information board in the departure hall of Sofia airport
Analysts say it may be a week after the ash has cleared before flights return to normal

The fallout from the Icelandic volcano will be felt long after the ash has settled.

For while the majority of flights may be back in the air by the beginning of next week, it will be many more days before the airlines have got their schedules back on track.

And that means more delayed flights for thousands of passengers, many of whom may be under the false impression that, once the ash clears, planes will be free to fly as normal.

"Airlines face a logistical nightmare," explains Barry Turner-Woods, contributing editor of Airlines World.

Not only will there be a backlog of flights to clear, but planes are stranded across the world in destinations thousands of miles from where they need to be.

Domino effect

Flight schedules are intricate and complex, and the consequences of missing just one flight, let alone hundreds, can be far reaching.

Airlines rely on a carefully-planned sequence of flights. Once the sequence is broken, it is very hard to catch up
John Strickland, JLS Consulting

For example, as John Strickland, director of the aviation consultancy JLS Consulting, explains, an Air New Zealand flight from Hong Kong to London was forced to land in Frankfurt.

As a result, it had to cancel the flight back to Hong Kong. Another of the carrier's aircraft got into London from Los Angeles before the airspace closure - meaning it had to cancel a London to LA flight because that plane is stuck at Heathrow Airport.

The domino effect only loses momentum once the airlines can start flying again.

"This is a really big headache, especially for long-haul operators," says Mr Strickland.

"Airlines rely on a carefully-planned sequence of flights. Once the sequence is broken, it is very hard to catch up, particularly on complex routes such as the UK to Asia or Australia."

And as more airports fall under the volcanic cloud, the problem will only get worse, particularly when those airports are international hubs such as Paris and Frankfurt, both of which were closed on Friday.

Jet lag

The logistics involved in getting back on track are hard to grasp - it's not simply a question of waiting for the ash to clear and sending the planes on their way.

"In some cases, airlines won't be able to stick with the same crew," explains Mr Strickland.


Staff at a UK airport fly kites and go jogging on the empty runway

"Crew are entitled to rest periods and they may not be available for the next flight. It may actually be quicker to recover the plane with a different crew."

Airlines also have to bear in mind the time zones in which the crew are operating. Even if they are free, there are strict safety regulations to guard against jet lag. Crew's body clocks are intricately connected to flight schedules.

Not only, then, does the airline have to foot the bill for putting up crew in hotels while they wait, but they may have to pay for a whole new crew to fly out to pick up a stranded plane.

Mr Strickland estimates that it could take some airlines a full week after the ash clears before they can resume a normal service on complex long-haul flights.

Mr Turner-Woods believes it will take them four to five days.

"It really depends on capacity - if the flights are full or not," he says. An airline with plenty of free seats will be able to clear the backlog quicker.

Tight budgets

One thing is for sure, he argues: "You won't find any airlines hiring extra aircraft to cover the shortfall."

This is for the very simple reason that they cannot afford to.

"The fixed costs in the airline business are enormous, and they still need to be met," says Tim Coombs, managing director of Aviation Economics.

It will be relatively easy for short-haul, low-cost operators to get their schedules back on track
Tim Coombs, managing director, Aviation Economics

Large airlines such as British Airways or Lufthansa are losing about £10m a day while their planes are grounded, according to Douglas McNeill, a transport analyst at Charles Stanley Securities.

And most major airlines can ill-afford to charter additional planes at a time when they are struggling to make money.

Short-haul operators, however, should be less badly affected.

"It will be relatively easy for short-haul, low-cost operators to get their schedules back on track," says Mr Coombs.

And there is no way of knowing which passengers will be hit as airlines struggle with the logistics of returning to business as normal.

"Some people will be lucky, others will not," says Mr Turner-Woods.

Grounded flights

Then there is the problem of actually getting the planes off the ground once the ash clears.

Any airline will usually have the majority of its planes in the air, not all of them sitting on the ground. At airports that have been closed completely, this means there are huge numbers of planes that are parked up.

"Airlines don't usually have this much capacity on the ground," explains Mr Strickland.

"The choreography involved [in getting them all up in the air] is a real problem."

This will be a minor issue compared with re-scheduling entire flight programmes, but is just one of many logistical conundrums facing global airlines.

Unfortunately for airlines and passengers alike, the knock-on effects of the Icelandic volcanic eruption will be felt long after planes take to the skies once more.

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