Posted by: mattburleigh | April 21, 2010

Groundhog Day

Califon Charlie

Califon Charlie

Punxsutawney has Phil. Califon has Charlie. Phil predicts how many weeks of winter are left. Charlie predicts how many days of ash are left. I have been hunting Charlie for two days and finally shot him with Nick’s fancy camera.

Charlie says: 4 more days.

Groundhog day is also of course the tale of being stuck in a timeloop where every day seems the same. I guess that could be true if I let it, but its only true in the sense that the uncertainty seems to go on and on. Miranda said to me today she wishes the authorities would actually just say the airspace is shut ’til say Friday, when the winds are predicted to change, instead of this 12-hourly update nonsense. She’s spent all day preparing for flights that aren’t going to arrive or depart.

I now have a ticket on Aer Lingus on Sunday out of Boston. If that goes, via Shannon, I can make Miranda’s birthday on Monday. If not, there’s AA on Tuesday from JFK. So I feel a bit happier that there’s a plan and have been getting on with a few things, being office mate to Nick in his basement, and playing uncle when required.

Uncle Matt. (feel like John Candy, and look like him too ...or Chris Moyles?)

It is very difficult to be phlegmatic and just get on with life, “enjoy the holiday” as some people back home might be thinking, when you have no idea when you are really going to get home.

Here in the states it feels a little bit like the UK media have forgotten about us. No ferries to catch, or Eurostars, or Royal Navy warships coming to the rescue. I joked with Mark Waters that the Preston cricketers should hire a boat and sail across the ocean to rescue the Hills and I. Pack a few crates of lager, some tabs for Finley, some “reading” material, let Smudger man the tiller and Catman can organise secret santa to keep the ‘sailors’ entertained. Mark replied, “How did you know that was our plan Bomber?”.

Will it come to boats? Nick and I checked the cruise ship schedules. Turns out the Queen Mary II is departing New York for Southampton on April 29th and there are still berths left….(~$1500). Maybe I could volunteer to give a few astronomy lectures for a discount (“like Brian Cox, but fatter and not northern”). We also looked at cargo ships. Seems many of them are happy to take a handful of passengers, but we couldn’t find schedules on any website. Probably have to talk directly to the shipping companies. But if it comes to it…

The Foreign Office advice is intriguing. They are saying they will use Madrid

“as a hub for British nationals stranded outside Europe.

Discussions are ongoing with the airline industry to fly long-haul passengers destined for UK airports to Madrid, where the UK Government is making provision to transfer passengers to the UK via the Ports of Northern France.

Coaches from the UK and Spain are being dispatched to Madrid. We have made arrangements for 150 coaches to travel from the UK to Spain.

This process will start on Wednesday 21 April with up to 50 coaches going to Spain.”

I can tell you already that you can’t get a flight to Madrid from the US for at least a week without paying several thousand for a business class fare. Presumably they are trying to persuade the trans-atlantic carriers to take our London-scheduled flights into Madrid. Even if they agree, I’m not sure the numbers work here.
How many people can you get on a coach? Let’s be generous and say 100. So, 150 coaches x 100 people = 15000. Divide by a full 777 load (as an average of a jumbo and a 767): 300 people. That’s 50 plane loads. The 150 coaches will take at least 2 days to get to Calais and back from Madrid (not allowing for driver rests). So that’s 50 planes every two days being catered for in this plan. But there are roughly 40 flights a day from New York to London alone, let alone the rest of the US.

It doesn’t add up to me. In fact, it sounds a recipe for chaos. Who will staff the arrivals and departures? I know a bit about this because that’s Miranda’s team’s job. South African Airways, for example, have no presence at Madrid. They would presumably have to flown out there and housed in a nearby hotel. That will take days to organise. Or maybe staff from other airlines will be asked to cope. But Madrid is a busy enough airport as it is.

While we may all have to put up with some hardship to get home, you can quickly see this idea may simply not be workable, or only for a fraction of the scheduled trans-atlantic flights to the UK.

Sounds to me like a policy coming from the same Scottish backside as sending aircraft carriers to Calais (the Ark Royal is now off on a military exercise because it can’t fit into Calais harbour).


They just opened UK airspace. Not because the scientists and engineers deemed it safe. Nothing has changed. This is a blatantly political decision. A government with an election to win has to be seen to be doing something. An airline industry fears bankruptcy. God forbid the pilot’s caution turns out to be a warning. The Guardian’s scientific panel today certainly did not say “re-open asap”.
I don’t want to be on the first plane that suffers a flame-out, or worse. Remember the town mayor in Jaws, desperate to keep the beaches open? Let’s hope his real-life incarnation is not Willie Walsh.

Town mayor from Jaws

Willie slasher Walsh

I still think Califon Charlie is correct. Just hope he hasn’t commented on the size of the dust grains only because no-one asked….

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