The superfast rail link between London and Hong Kong is just one of the ways the world is coping without regular jetliners

The train which arrived at London’s St Pancras station today has taken a mere four days to travel from Hong Kong. On board were a number of tourists, a few business worthies, and 7,500 tons of freight; the equivalent of 160 Airbus A300 cargo planes.

“This caps just how much the world has changed since Katla erupted back in 2010,” says Colin Moss, Chief Logistics Officer at Tesco, one of the world’s largest retailers. “I’d say we’re now offering a wider variety of products at lower cost and from more places than before 2010.”

Much has changed in the 15 years since Eyjafjallajökull triggered Katla to erupt in Iceland in June 2010. European airspace, from Iceland across most of Russia and the north of China remains closed to conventional air traffic, and turbo-prop planes have limited capacity. The fine ash still floating above the northern hemisphere has cooled the planet, changing agricultural patterns and increasing the north’s reliance on the south. Major economic centers have shifted, turning Cadiz, in southern Spain, into a banking and finance hub. No company can be without its CLO – or Chief Logistics Officer – who must navigate the complex patterns and processes by which goods must make their way around the world.

“On a good week I can send our anti-locking systems by fast train from Detroit to New York. From there they’re flown to Casablanca in Morocco, and then via superfast track under the Hercules Tunnel to Cadiz and on by regular train to our clients in Germany,” says Hank Greenberg, the CLO at General Motors. “But, if the planes can’t fly, then I might have to send our goods via hovercraft, or airship.”

The new tunnels between Spain and Morocco, and Italy and Tunisia have increased the links between North Africa and Europe, improving political stability along with trade and tourism.

“When all the European airlines collapsed and millions lost their jobs 15 years ago, I don’t think anyone would have seen how well this would all turn out,” says Moss.

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

When Mount St Helens erupted in the US in 1980, we did not see large scale disruptions because the decisions to open or close airspace were risk-managed with no compromise on safety. The Icelandic volcano ash caused widespread disruption precisely because of blanket airspace closures.

‘Open skies’ and regional co-ordination can mitigate much of the disruption, for example, simply by allowing long-haul flights bound for France to divert to Spain with a minimum of fuss. Maximizing available air corridors should also be given priority.

In the longer run, much of the problem can be obviated by having military style emergency plans in place. If NATO had a rapid response fleet of hovercraft, transporter aircraft adapted for desert operations and emergency airstrip ground crews, a regional, if not intercontinental airlift could be mounted in response to volcanic disruption.

A further factor worth considering – what if some other climatic or geological disaster, not volcanoes, caused similar transport crises. How could innovation and preparedness deal with a transport crisis on this scale in the future?

Reliance on current technology air travel is another issue. Alternatives to air such as high-speed rail, ships and road trains have great advantages when air transport is disrupted. Ground-effect aircraft, airships and propeller-driven freighter drones all offer alternatives.

But the real threat to conventional logistics is another eruption from Katla, Eyjafjallajökull’s bigger brother. That could cause ash problems that would last for decades. A six-day closure of European airspace resulted in 95.000 cancelled flights affecting 6.8 million passengers. Dangerous skies for years would be catastrophic, unless radical innovation comes to the rescue.
2010: Big Brother Katla Erupts>
Eyjafjallajökull triggers Katla to erupt in June 2010 which closes all European airspace from Iceland down to Spain (except, on good days, Cadiz) and across the Mediterranean, touching Tunisia, Egypt, over the Middle East, including Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, China and up over Mongolia and most of Russia.

Temperatures over this area plunge a mean 5 degrees Celsius, which counteracts global warming but also results in numerous crop failures.

The immediate impact on business and tourism results in millions of lost jobs, then a growth of localism as micro-farming based on aquaculture replaces cash crops from the rest of the world. There is an overnight collapse of the flower and perishable produce industries in Africa and parts of South East Asia.

Multinational manufacturers, especially the auto makers, must reinvent their just-in-time production and logistics processes or face extinction.

2011: The Ash of War>
Al Qaeda launches a new onslaught in Afghanistan taking advantage of the limited air-support available to US troops. DARPA offers US$ 10 million in a new challenge, to the company that can invent a new jet that is impervious to ash. GE and Pratt & Whitney release new jets based on their pulse detonation designs within a year but these are noisy and expensive to operate – not good enough for commercial airlines but fine for the military.

Governments start major railway-building exercises to put in fast tracks across Europe and this also triggers a degree of diplomacy as countries in the Middle East begin to co-operate to ensure that goods can still transit through their territories. Jet engine companies start to experiment with new types of propulsion while airlines across Europe collapse.

British Airways and Delta Airlines invest in a new hub in Southern Spain before shifting attention to Morocco.

Spain and Morocco agree to build the Tunnel of Hercules which will link the cities of Cadiz, Gibraltar and Casablanca via 23 kilometers of tunnel underneath the Strait of Gibraltar. BA starts offering airship trips across the Atlantic; other companies start offering hovercraft trips across the Mediterranean to airports in North Africa.

Meanwhile, isolated companies are moving closer to new airports while still trying to keep the advantages of European laws. Banking and insurance industries in the UK and Switzerland are migrating rapidly to Spain and Gibraltar.

“Gibraltar was the obvious choice for us,” says Miriam Webster of Conversion, a hedge-fund. “UK laws but with a fantastic tax structure for business and very easy crossings to international airports in Morocco.”

2012: A New, New Cold War>
Russia is almost physically isolated from the world and builds new railway lines across its continent to the unstable port of Vladivostok. New relationships with China see the first super-fast track between Moscow and Beijing being commissioned. China’s ultimate plan, though, is a line with stops in Shanghai, Beijing, Moscow, Warsaw, Frankfurt, Brussels and London.

With air-traffic down, oil prices collapse triggering instability in the Middle East and parts of Latin America (especially Iran and Venezuela).

A major spying incident is thwarted when Chinese agents are discovered attempting to steal US military jet designs. China is terrified that they no longer have a credible nuclear deterrent as their rockets become unstable in these new conditions. Iran and North Korea’s missiles are also grounded as the ash disrupts guidance systems and clogs rocket controls. Low flying cruise missiles remain superior and totally effective.
In the aftermath, the US forbids private companies from licensing the new jet engines for ten years to allow the US air force to retain its superiority.

2018: Mt St Helens Erupts>
A bizarre repeat of the Mt St Helens eruption causes huge clouds of ash over North America. Weeks later the Icelandic volcanoes once more disrupt air traffic in Europe. The economic impact causes global recovery to falter. The boom of 2016 is over, and another global recession begins.

GE has been working on a ‘dust-proof’ turbofan engine, but it’s not ready for commercial jets yet. The US moratorium on licensing pulse detonation jets to commercial airlines is challenged in court, but US president Barack Obama uses his presidential veto to overrule the case.

2020: Light Through The Ash
The world economy starts to recover, with China again leading the way. Europe was hard hit and is struggling to emerge. The United States managed to deal better with disruption and recession since their experiences with 9/11 and other disasters. Their air force, navy and national guard helped out greatly in the 2018 air-travel disruption.

The massive new rolling stock is taking advantage of the partially-built super-fast rail lines across Europe and Asia. Lower prices mean that far more Asians are travelling than ever before, creating better integration both socially and commercially.

Family-owned Bed and Breakfasts in Cornwall, in the South West of England, now cite Chinese tourists as among their most important.

2022: Transport Coordination Gets Real>
An international program for global transport coordination is set up. Already Africa has been linked to Europe with the Hercules Tunnel. China has completed their high speed rail link from Shanghai to Moscow. But more options are required.

Plans are developed to deal with global transport disruptions, whatever the source. It’s become an economic imperative in this inter-connected world, to keep the wheels of industry turning.

2024: Disruptions Are Non-Disruptive>
Another transport disruption strikes as Katla triggers further eruptions elsewhere in Iceland. This time countries and regions are better prepared. Landing rights are immediately relaxed and flights divert accordingly. Rail and air links are smoothly interchanged where required.

FedEx deploys its recently acquired fleet of airships – slower but much more reliable when conditions are hazardous – no runway required.

NATO reveals their emergency transport task force can move 250,000 people and 150,000 tons of cargo from anywhere to anywhere in just six days.

But more importantly the options are much greater. Video conferencing has become totally immersive – it’s just like being there, courtesy of augmented reality. So fewer people find it necessary to actually travel.

Logistics are also easier to re-schedule. With most freight flights and trains being totally automated, they travel at off-peak times and via most efficient routes, with no risk to human life. That makes them more competitive too.

2025: Take The Fast Train
The history of global economic crashes, be they as a result of cash or ash, has lead to a realization.

“We need to diversify our risks,” says John Mendes of HSBC Risk Management. “It isn’t enough to have one type of super-fast distribution system, or one type of energy production any more than one should put one’s entire investment portfolio in one company.”

As the first train able to travel in an unbroken line from Hong Kong to London arrives, global leaders realize that diversity is strength.

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

Despite appearances to the contrary, Futureworld cannot and does not predict the future. Our Mindbullets scenarios are fictitious and designed purely to explore possible futures, challenge and stimulate strategic thinking. Use these at your own risk. Any reference to actual people, entities or events is entirely allegorical. Copyright Futureworld International Limited. Reproduction or distribution permitted only with recognition of Copyright and the inclusion of this disclaimer.