While airlines and ministers say the Icelandic ash cloud is sending revenues up in smoke, a handful of others are finding unexpected ways to cash in on the boom.
With Swiss airspace closed until at least 10am on Tuesday, thousands of travellers have been forced to book hotels, take trains, rent cars, linger in bars and hire taxis to cover enormous distances – in one case from Zurich to Kiev.
Even climatologists say the dramatic eruption in Iceland that has ground air traffic to a halt over much of the continent has presented a rare opportunity to collect atmospheric data on emission levels with no planes roaring across the sky.
“It really is an optimal time,” Stephan Bader, a climatologist with MeteoSwiss, told swissinfo.ch. “The same thing happened after the Twin Towers on September 11 [when flights were grounded for several days].”
In the end the negative impacts will almost certainly outweigh the good – with the International Air Transport Association estimating airlines are losing upwards of $200 million (SFr213.6 million) a day.
But for a short while, at least, there seemed to be an upbeat side to the matter, if not one of resignation, as travellers opened their wallets to help pass the time.
“What else can you do?” said a British lecturer who opted to spend his time stranded in Basel hovering over one of several SFr9 pints at a warm outdoor pub. “It could be much worse. Would you like a beer?”
Trains over the past few days have been packed with passengers covering distances they typically would have flown. A EuroCity from Italy passing through Bern and Basel and into France over the weekend was so crowded that people could barely squeeze through the doors.
Swiss Federal Railways spokesman Roman Marti said the company configured trains with twice as many carriages as normal to handle the increased demand. At least 100 more staff than usual were on duty to help deal with the surge.
“We had a lot of supplementary efforts – employees at counters, in front of counters, going down the lines of people offering water, adding carriages,” he told swissinfo.ch. “On Friday we had people literally stranded trying to get from A to B but now we are noticing fewer people at counters.”
Demand on Monday had levelled off as people had more time to come up with alternative plans in light of cancelled flights. “It’s still very important to make reservations for trains,” he said.
Marti added it’s too early to tell how much the increase in passengers would affect figures for April but that any leap in revenues would not be proportional.
“Twice as many people doesn’t mean twice as much money,” he said. “It’s much more complicated than that, especially with international tickets.”
Taxi to Kiev
Airport taxi drivers, on the whole, have been losing money with fewer passengers to ferry. But a few have cashed in on spectacular fares.
“We had a mini bus take a group of eight Russians to Vienna so they could get a flight,” Jörg Arnold, president of the Zurich Hotels’ Association, told swissinfo.ch. The fare? About SFr4,500. “We had another group go to Kiev,” he said. ”I have no idea what [a 2,127km taxi ride] costs.”
Others have tried to hire private jets or rent cars to no avail, Arnold said. Daniel Frei, manager of Heliswiss, a helicopter service based in Bern, told swissinfo.ch that several groups had called asking about helicopter taxis to southern Germany. Such a trip would cost about SFr7,500.
While hotels in the greater Zurich area were nearly all booked solid over the weekend, Arnold said the boom would be short-lived.
“It’s now changing,” he said. “The problem now is that people are leaving but the new groups can’t arrive.”
Another problem: Restaurants that rely on receiving meat from North America or fish from the Atlantic by plane are seeing stocks dwindle. But even that could be a plus for some businesses.
“We can always switch to Swiss fish,” Arnold said.
Then again, raclette [cheese] might taste good any time of the year.
Tim Neville, swissinfo.ch
Zurich airport is Switzerland's largest international gateway and hub to Swiss International Air Lines.
Geneva and Basel also operate regular international flights.
Bern and Lugano are mainly regional airports.
Small jagged pieces of rocks, minerals, and volcanic glass the size of sand and silt (less than 2 millimetres (1/12 inch) in diameter) erupted by a volcano are called volcanic ash.
Volcanic ash is not the product of combustion. It is hard, does not dissolve in water, is extremely abrasive and mildly corrosive, and conducts electricity when wet.
Volcanic ash is formed during explosive volcanic eruptions. Explosive eruptions occur when gases dissolved in molten rock (magma) expand and escape violently into the air, and also when water is heated by magma and abruptly flashes into steam.
Expanding gas shreds magma and blasts it into the air, where it solidifies into fragments of volcanic rock and glass.
Once in the air, wind can blow the tiny ash particles tens to thousands of kilometres away from the volcano.
(Source: United States Geological Survey)