In all my conversations with business continuity professionals in London, I don’t recall anyone, ever mentioning the risk to supply chains or personnel posed by Icelandic volcanoes. What we just experienced was a classic Black Swan – something unheard of in this part of the world, something so far off the radar, it didn’t appear on a European’s risk register outside Iceland. We had a relatively rare event – a steam-laden eruption coinciding with just the right weather conditions to allow an ash cloud to hang over Europe for several days – combined with a zero tolerance for ash+aviation, through lack of data.
On June 24, 1982 British Airways Flight 9 en route to Perth, flew through the ash cloud of Mount Galunggung, Indonesia losing all four engines for 13 minutes before managing to restart one, then all four, then losing one again, before landing in Jakarta with a badly damaged plane, abraded leading edge surfaces and obscured windscreen. On July 13, another 747, a Singapore airlines plane, was forced to shut down 3 engines in the same area. Since then authorties have developed strict guidelines, that we find in retrospect were (hopefully) too harsh. We didn’t know what the safe levels of ash were and now that we have much more data gathered over the past week, the aviation authorities have come up with a level that they feel represents a safe threshold.
But weather patterns are fickle, and volcanoes are even more so. Eyjafjallajökull is a mere pup compared to its next door neighbour, Katla. The last three times Eyjafjallajökull erupted, Katla also erupted shortly after. Iceland’s President Olafur Grimsson this week referred to the recent event as a small rehearsal for what will happen when Katla comes alive. Suddenly risk managers and business continuity professionals have something new to consider – or rather something very old, but overdue. The past six days has also demonstrated that unless we have a balanced, reasonable approach to risk, we endanger the mechanisms of our society and commerce through excess caution.