Travel Insurance for Volcanic Ash.


Everything you need to know about travel insurance volcano cover.

Ever heard of the Ring of Fire? Not the famous Johnny Cash song, the “other” ring of fire. Unfortunately, as cool as the name is, the Ring of Fire is another name for the enormous geological feature surrounding the Pacific Ocean. The Ring of Fire is not actually a circle of flame, but represents volcanic activity in many forms on the edges of the vast Pacific Tectonic Plate. This enormous plate is over 100 million square kms and is the largest of the 8 major plates covering the earth. It’s boundaries stretch from Antarctica in the south, up the Southern Alps of New Zealand across the island of Papua New Guinea up to Japan, Russia and across to the USA where it forms the infamous San Andreas Fault Line against the North American tectonic plate. Because of this, the entire region is prone to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. According to some sources 75% of the world’s active volcanoes sit on the Ring of Fire. The entire island chain of Hawaii (and many others including parts of Vanuatu and even the Philippines) were created by activity on the Pacific plate.

So how does this affect travel?

The recent history of volcanic ash affecting airplanes is centered around 5 events. The first was entirely by accident. In 1982, British Airways flight BA009 flew through the ash cloud of Indonesian volcano Mt Gulangung. All four engines of the Boeing 747 stalled. The plane dropped 25,000 feet, before the pilot, Captain Moody was able to get 3 of the engines restarted at 12,000 feet, and land the plane safely. Only later did investigations reveal what had happened. In the heat of the planes Rolls Royce engines, particles from the ash cloud formed molten glass, which clogged the combustion chamber and turbine. With the engines stopped and cooling as the aircraft slowly descended in a glide the molten glass hardened and broke off, allowing the engines to be restarted.

In 2000 a NASA DC-8 was flying to Sweden, and inadvertently flew into the ash caused by Icelandic volcano Mt Hekla. This begs the question, two decades earlier they were aware of the potential damage an ash cloud can cause, so why did they fly into one? February 28th 2000 was a “moonless and cloudless” sky, when suddenly the instruments on board the DC-8 started measuring the presence of the volcanic gas sulphur dioxide in quantities far higher than expected. Clearly invisible particles from the volcano were moving far further and far higher than previously expected. During the 7 minutes when the sulphur dioxide was detectable, the pilots didn’t notice any other change in measurements from the cockpit. When the plane touched down all seemed normal. The engines were later taken apart and examined, only then did it become apparent that the damage caused by volcanic clouds can spread much further than the ash cloud itself appears to. When the engines were investigated further it was revealed that most parts including the blades and rotors were coated with a fine powder, and air holes were blocked, with a buildup of fine white powder throughout the engines.   

Now let’s take a look at the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland which famously and expensively disrupted 7 million passengers and created a backlog which took weeks to clear. Fortunately by then, the aviation industry was well aware of the potential problems volcanic ash can cause to airplanes. The eruption resulted in the largest air-traffic shut-down since World War II. This single event caused the entire travel insurance industry to re-think the way it assesses volcano risk! The worst case scenario was almost realised, in peak travel season with large numbers of travellers stuck in some of the most expensive places in the world. To make matters worse, opportunistic hoteliers seized the opportunity to double or even triple their usual rates for hotel rooms. Fortunately the eruption was short lived and flights resumed after around a week of shut down. The cost to the travel industry was over NZD$3 billion by some estimates.

Then there’s the 2011 Puyehue-Cordón Caulle eruption in Chile. While it seems unlikely that a volcanic eruption in remote Chile could have the same impact as one over the busiest air routes in Europe, this event showed the world what can happen when enough ash is ejected into the atmosphere at high enough altitudes. Trade winds carried the ash cloud around the globe between 20,000 and 30,000 feet, causing flight disruption on a global scale, affecting flights as far away as New Zealand, Southern and Western Australia and even South Africa. At its peak the ash cloud extended 3,300kms and circled the globe on trade winds.

More recently we’ve seen a speight of eruptions from various Indonesian volcanoes near the popular resort island of Bali. Notorious for causing travel delays and stranding passengers, Mt Agung is Bali’s highest point, and has been erupting alongside it’s explosive neighbours Mt Batur and Mt Rinjani (on nearby Lombok) on and off for much of 2017 and 2018. These volcanoes have once again caused travel insurers to reconsider how they view the potential disruption around these destructive events of nature, as the lasting effect of these eruptions is still being realised. Nowadays most insurers explicitly state what’s covered in travel warnings related to each volcanic event, typically relating to the time of event and the time customers purchased their insurance.

So what does travel insurance cover when it comes to volcanoes?

The guiding principle is, if it’s unexpected we’ll cover it. When it comes to disruption caused by volcanic activity, if the eruption has already started, cover is no longer available for that event. Think about it this way – if your car caught fire, it’s probably too late to call the insurance company and ask them to cover it. The same thinking applies. The trick is to get your policy early, as soon as you’ve paid for deposits on your flights and accommodation. If the volcano is active at the time you’re considering a destination, perhaps it’s time to consider somewhere a little less “active” – if only for this trip!

On the other hand, if you booked your trip a month ago and got insurance at the same time, and you’re enjoying your well deserved holiday when a nearby mountain explodes – causing your return flight to be cancelled and your stay to be extended – that’s where insurance can make all the difference. So whilst the airline has to honour your return flight, you know you’ll eventually get back, but you weren’t expecting to have to cover the cost of extra nights at the resort, and extra meals etc. until they can get you out. That’s exactly when we step in, helping you recover those lost unexpected expenses.

If you’re directly affected by volcanic activity, for example you’re injured or your belongings are destroyed, Holiday Rescue covers unlimited medical costs, and up to $5,000 per person for your personal items on a comprehensive policy. Volcanoes are some of nature’s most devastating and destructive events!

Q. Do you cover bad weather?

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