Norway, with its mountainous terrain and vast distances from north to south, is particularly dependent on air traffic. It’s therefore considered among the countries in Europe hardest hit by the Icelandic volcano’s forced grounding of all flights.
Other European countries can manage better, “because they have more alternatives to air traffic,” the head of Norway’s civil aviation authority Avinor, Sverre Qvale, told newspaper Aftenposten.
Qvale wasn’t downplaying the enormous problems caused by the closure of airports in busy European hubs like Amsterdam and London. But the “lives and health” of residents there aren’t put as much at risk as in Norway.
Norway has 46 airports for a population of less than 5 million, no small indicator of the importance of air travel. “We have many communities and settlements in remote areas that have almost no alternatives to air travel,” said Qvale, who candidly admitted he and his crew had never encountered an emergency like the one caused by this forced closure of air space over the entire country.
(Photo at top: Dangerous clouds of ash and debris from Iceland’s latest volcanic eruption make air travel dangerous. Below: A diagram showing how the volcanic clouds were sweeping east towards Scandinavia and northern Europe.)
Never before have all civilian and military aircraft been grounded, and most alarming was its effect on Norway’s important air ambulance and helicopter rescue services. They offer a literal lifeline to residents of the thousands of islands along Norway’s long coastline, and to those living in remote valleys and areas without highways.
While state health officials scrambled to beef up conventional vehicular ambulance preparedness, they worried it was only a matter of time before the lack of air ambulance service would have dire consequences for people needing acute medical help.
In one case already, on Thursday, an oil worker on a North Sea platform suffering from a suspected heart attack had to be transported by boat to a mainland hospital. The trip took 10 hours, compared to the 90 minutes it would have taken if a rescue helicopter could have flown.
Norway’s aviation administration, Luftfartstilsynet, later said air ambulances and rescue helicopters would be allowed to resume flights, in coordination with Avinor and its own traffic agency.
Norway’s postal service also was severely disrupted by its inability to carry mail by air. While everything from sporting events to business meetings to holidays and conferences faced disruption and cancellation, businesses dependent on air travel also hoped the volcanic cloud would disperse soon.
The country’s salmon exporters, for example, launched into crisis mode on Thursday. Some managed to truck fresh fish to airports in southern Europe that remained open, while others planned to cut production or freeze their fresh seafood.
Marine Harvest, the world’s biggest salmon producer, had 100 tons of salmon ready to be flown from Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen on Thursday. It was quickly trucked to France for onward shipment, reported newspaper Dagens Næringsliv, but airports were closing there as well.