Written By: Vicki Thomas

(In a new weekly online column, we’ll be taking a look at recent major news events such as natural disasters and threats. We’ll review the news reports and provide a higher-level look at these events and provide links to the recent news coverage.)

A fire at a major U.S air traffic control center and an erupting volcano in Japan, made headlines this past weekend and continue to send shockwaves days later. While both of these disasters were very different in their nature – the fire is an alleged act of employee sabotage and the volcano eruption was completely unexpected, both events highlight the need for awareness, communication and planning.


By Michal Osmenda from Brussels, Belgium [CC-BY-SA-2.0]

The fire at an air traffic control center in Auroa, Illinois set on Friday Sept. 26 resulted in more than 2,000 flights in and out of Chicago O’Hare and Chicago Midway airports being canceled. These flight cancellations had a rippling impact through-out North America with many travellers left stranded and scrambling to make alternate travel arrangements.

Canceled flights. Lack of information. Manual communication. Fax machines. Requiring two people to do a job of one. These are just some of the immediate and known impacts of this fire. Now as the details of how the FAA responded to this fire and loss of a major air traffic control center people are beginning to call into question the level of readiness and response.

Aviation analyst Joseph Schwieterman of dePaul University in Chicago, was quoted in a September 27 article in The Guardian as saying, “This is a nightmare scenario when we thought systems were in place to prevent it. Technology is advancing so fast that … there’s less of a need for air traffic control to be so geographically oriented. I think the FAA’s going to find itself under a microscope.”

The widespread impact of this fire as well as how easy it was to bring a halt to over 2,000 flights has raised concern amongst passengers. Quoted in the September 26 Guardian article is Gary Campbell a passenger who had to settle for a refund on his flight, “That it is so easy to disrupt the system is disturbing.They need to see how to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”

With so many travellers already displeased with the state of air travel in North America, this fire will have a wide-ranging impact which will most likely result in financial problems for many major airlines. Public relations and strong communications with disgruntled passengers and future passengers will be key in mitigating a continued negative public image for the country’s major airlines.

While the disaster in Japan at Mount Ontake was of course of a completely different nature, it is one that authorities in Japan really could have done without. In a country still reeling from the effects of the 2011 nuclear disaster, even a natural disaster such as volcanic eruption will have far-reaching impacts on its citizens, tourism, investment and overall confidence in the country. Mount Ontake erupted just before noon on Saturday September 27, a day when the mountain was packed with many hikers out enjoying an unseasonably warm day. At the time of writing, 36 people have been confirmed dead, likely from a combination of asphyxiation, falling rocks and exposure to toxic gasses. More than 500 rescuers were sent to the mountain on Monday morning to resume searching for those on the mountain, but due to toxic gases and ash from the still active and erupting volcano, these rescuers have been forced to call of the search.

This is the second natural disaster to occur in Japan this month. Earlier in the month a tragic landslide occurred in Hiroshima that killed more than 70 people.

As is normal when a natural disaster such as this strikes, people want to know if there were any indicators that the volcano was going to erupt. Seismologist report that there were no such indicators, even though increased seismic activity had been measured for two weeks.

In the coming days there will sure to be questions about how seismologist should have reacted to this increased activity and if the public should have been alerted to the outside potential threat of a volcano, even though the typical indicators of underground structural movement and increased seismic rattling did not occur.

Right now the immediate concern at Mount Ontake is in getting everyone off the mountain and then the questions from the public, officials and family members will begin.

While no conclusions can be drawn from these two very different disasters, one common theme runs through both – the value of communication and preparedness. In the coming days, there will surely be reviews and analysis of how the FAA and the major airlines responded to the unexpected interruption and loss of equipment. As well, official in Japan will soon be reviewing their data to determine what, if anything, was missed that could have indicated an eruption was imminent. Likely as well, an analysis of the disaster response to rescuing hikers from the mountain will be taken under analysis.

Read the following news articles to get the latest news on these events: