Monday, April 19, 2010

European Aviation and the Icelandic Volcano

This morning I have a few graphs concerning European aviation, with a view to getting a better sense of the role aviation plays in a modern economy.  Data are from Eurostat, unless otherwise noted.  The map above shows the weight of air freight transiting each country.  As you can see, it's the countries at the heart of Western Europe that do the most trade by air.  Unfortunately, they are also the ones most in the way of the plume:

Similarly, this map (from here) shows the top pairwise traffic linkages, accounting for 43% of total EU internal passenger air-travel:

As far as freight and mail goes, air transport is mainly used externally to the EU rather than internally (presumably for internal transport, road and rail are more competitive):

Thus whatever economic effects there will be due to disruption of air-freight can presumably also have a significant impact on the rest of the world (which is either the importer or exporter).

I have not been able to find European data on what fraction of trade occurs by air.  We saw the other day a figure for the UK of 30% by value (obviously much less by weight).  Figures for the US are similar:

So presumably Europe as a whole is roughly the same order of magnitude.  This suggests to me that an extended air transport outage would have a pretty big economic impact - companies accustomed to shipping by air will have supply chains optimized without much inventory.  I have not managed to find good statistics on what the composition of air freight is, but I have seen pharmaceuticals and semiconductors mentioned as being particularly significant - both high-value light-weight products.

The good news is that the volcano plume height is now below the level of the tropopause, so it will presumably be less likely to be transported to Europe, assuming the eruption doesn't strengthen again.  So maybe relief is in sight.  And perhaps we won't get to find out just how big the economic impact would get.

However, the impact on airlines is probably already significant.  This chart from the International Air Transport Association shows that European airlines were already the worst hit by the economic crisis:

At $200m/day of losses, the 5-6 days of no flights already will have materially worsened the expected 2010 loss.

Update: Yep, Guardian reports that British air-space will begin to re-open tomorrow (April 20th).


Datamunger said...

An amusing tidbit from coverage of the volcano:

Some years ago my friend Simon Winchester was giving a lecture in the US about what might happen if the dormant volcano under Yellowstone Park erupted. It would, he said, kill a vast number of people in the world. "Americans too?" asked a woman in the audience.

Stuart Staniford said...

Well, apparently the volcano is toying with us. After the eruption was supposedly mostly over today, it started up again, and now all bets are off for tomorrow.