Fallows On The News: Fussing Over Flights In Europe News analyst and The Atlantic correspondent James Fallows also happens to be an instrument-rated pilot. Fallows gives host Guy Raz an explanation of the technical problems associated with flying through volcanic ash, as well as why the fuss may seem like an over-reaction when all is said and done.

Fallows On The News: Fussing Over Flights In Europe

Fallows On The News: Fussing Over Flights In Europe

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News analyst and The Atlantic correspondent James Fallows also happens to be an instrument-rated pilot. Fallows gives host Guy Raz an explanation of the technical problems associated with flying through volcanic ash, as well as why the fuss may seem like an over-reaction when all is said and done.

GUY RAZ, Host:

The Atlantic's James Fallows often helps us put the news into historical context. And this week, Jim, I'm feeling very lucky that you happen to be a licensed pilot as well.

JAMES FALLOWS: I'm not simply a historical figure, but also a flying guy.

RAZ: Okay. So, Jim, forgive this question if it sounds somewhat naive. But if scientists know the direction in which this ash cloud is spreading, why can't planes just sort of fly under or around or even above it?

FALLOWS: Flying around it, the real problem there is that while parts of this plume are certainly visible, you can't really see with your eyes when you're in a safe zone. And some of the most, you know, alarming exerts in the past have been in areas where the pilots didn't know they're getting through the ash. So, at the moment, it's just too vague and unavoidable a threat for the Europeans to deal with.

RAZ: I'm wondering, Jim, in your opinion, if you think that what is happening in Europe might be a little bit of an overreaction.

FALLOWS: But at the moment with so much uncertainty and especially with the (unintelligible), there's no fail-safe way in real time to know where it's safe for the airplanes to go. So I think it's very hard, if something went wrong, you would hate to be the airline official or the air traffic controller who said, oh yes, we thought it was worth taking the risk.

RAZ: All right, yeah, of course. Jim, on your blog, you linked to a story of a British Airways flight from 1982 that had to glide down to an emergency landing in Indonesia after flying through an ash cloud. So it's a very terrifying account. But I'm wondering, can't airplanes be built to sort of filter these stuff out? I mean, it seems a little bit worrying that they are so vulnerable to volcanic ash.

FALLOWS: But the way jet engines are built is not only does it take in a tremendous volume of air and shoot it out, we've all seen the front ends of these jet engine in the airplanes, which are huge. And if you have something that was built to filter out these extremely fine particles and keep them from getting into the turbine blade, it would be like trying to run a marathon or a mile race with six surgical masks. I mean, your face just couldn't take any air fast enough.

RAZ: Now, is there a safe point at which planes can actually fly through this stuff? I mean, maybe if it becomes less concentrated. Is that possible?

FALLOWS: And so, that's why I think that from a very, you know, humble scene in the beginning, we may have the biggest disruption in air travel certainly since 9/11 and perhaps ever.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's the national correspondent for the Atlantic. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks so much.

FALLOWS: Thank you, Guy. My pleasure.

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