The near-unpronounceable Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull (Iceland's U.S. embassy reported it as "AY-yah-fyah-lah-YOH-kuul") started erupting April 14, sending ash into the atmosphere over Europe and shutting down air travel over the continent for five days, with flights gradually resuming thereafter.
The airspace lockdown was the longest in Europe since World War II, forcing the cancellation of over 100,000 flights to the continent and stranding millions of passengers around the world. Cash-strapped travelers spent the days camped out in airports, and even when flights began to resume, the backup made tickets hard to come by. VIPs weren't any better off: President Obama, along with other world leaders, couldn't attend the Polish president's funeral April 18 as planned. German Chancellor Angela Murkel was stranded in San Francisco, eventually flying to North Dakota, Portugal, and Rome, where a bulletproof limousine carried her back to Germany. Two crucial meetings-an IMF-led confab to discuss Greece's financial crisis and a State Department meeting with Moscow officials to discuss the halt in U.S. adoptions of Russian children-had to be postponed. In Europe, trains, ferries, and roads were jammed with traffic, and one BBC correspondent reported paying about $2,700 for a cab ride from the French Alps to England.
Silicates in volcanic ash turn to glass in jet engines and have downed planes before. But airlines, which lost over $2 billion, complained that authorities had overreacted and the ban could have been lifted sooner. Nearly three-fourths of European air traffic had resumed by April 21, but the volcano hadn't stopped erupting, though it was producing less ash, and geologists can't predict whether it will stop anytime soon. Nor where the economic and political fallout eventually will land.