On a wing and a prayer

27 April 2010
The faces of the people around me on this 9.13pm Eurostar from Paris to St Pancras look as jaded and washed out as I feel. That is because, like me I expect, many of them have spent the past few days trying to contrive a way of getting back to the UK. At the time of writing, if you hadn’t guessed, the Icelandic ash is still clogging up the air corridors, and there are no flights at all to be had. I had a huge stroke of luck this morning when a late cancellation made this seat available. I haven’t enjoyed spending £300 so much in a very long time. (Ever, probably.) These past few days have been extraordinary. On a personal level, I have been sent scuttling back a quarter of a century, to that month I went Inter-Railing with a school friend. Like then, I have been wandering once again through grand European railway stations, trying to understand announcements in foreign languages and making sure I catch the right train. I have spent the night with five complete strangers in a six-berth couchette, and woken up in the morning with both wallet and clothing thankfully intact. I have drifted around European cities, profoundly short of sleep, not really knowing what I was doing or when I would see home again. But I’m supposed to be a responsible grown-up now, and beyond such adolescent reverie. So here is my more mature take on these events. Fragile. That is what our apparently robust, high tech, super-sophisticated world is. Sure, the volcanic eruption was unforeseeable. But one sudden interruption to European air travel has had a dramatic knock-on effect. The rest of the transport infrastructure was unable to cope with the overspill. If, for any reason, European travel were to continue to be disrupted in this way, the recovering global economy could easily be plunged back into recession. Maybe purchasers for internationally trading companies will have been among the least surprised by the speed and intensity of this meltdown. Extended global supply chains, which reach deep into far-flung corners of China or parts of south east Asia, are famously vulnerable to sudden upheavals. The price is nice, but the risk is high. Buyers know that when one link in a chain fails, an entire system can collapse. And that is the lesson we need to draw from these chaotic, no-fly days. Alternative systems need to be in place, in particular, alternative ways of working that do not require people to travel. We need to look at all our apparently solid, slick ways of doing things and ask: how would we cope right now if part or all of this system went down? Would we have even the slightest clue how to get out of trouble? Twenty-five years on, I was able to get out of my own tight corner this week with the help of a mobile phone, email, websites and a network of friends in different European countries. But even this fact might not quite offer the consolation it would seem to. Because although crises can be resolved quite quickly thanks to the new technology, their impact spreads faster for the same reason. In the wake of the first fully-fledged, global BlackBerry financial crisis, we should bear that thought in mind, too. Stefan Stern writes for the Financial Times (stefan.stern@ft.com)
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