To this day, Eyjafjallajökull is not a word he can bring himself to say. Dr. Andreas Jahnke steadfastly refuses to speak the name of the volcano. For him, it is simply "the volcano". That is only partly due to the fact that the name is such a tongue-twister. Eyjafjallajökull has simply cost the 41-year-old manager at Lufthansa Cargo too much sleep. During the most critical phase of the volcanic eruption in Iceland 2,400 kilometres away, the manager of the Lufthansa Cargo Center (LCC) at Frankfurt Airport was also the head of the crisis committee at Lufthansa’s freight subsidiary - and attempted to compensate for what the often difficult to understand decisions of the politicians and authorities had caused. In room 3.001 of the LCC everything had been prepared. The room measuring over 30 square metres on the third floor is the freight carrier’s crisis centre: on one wall two huge flat screens for TV broadcasts from all over the world. A dozen workstations with telephones and computers - whenever the flight schedule is thrown out of balance, because pilots or the ground personnel are on strike, snow paralyzes operations or storms have a negative effect, the crisis committee is summoned to meet here.
On Friday morning, 17th April, when it becomes clear that the cloud of ash has arrived over Central Europe and the authorities have issued an actual ban on flights as of six o'clock, an additional large map of the world hangs on a wall. 15 pins mark those airports at which the MD-11 freighters of Lufthansa Cargo are currently to be found. Four fully-loaded aircraft are stuck at the Siberian stopover Krasnoyarsk, three are in
Almaty in Kazakhstan and one aircraft each at the airports of Chicago, Dallas, São Paulo and Curacao in the Caribbean. One freighter was at Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg for re-painting, just one single aircraft was at the home base in Frankfurt. And there, of all places, was where the freight was piling up. In the next 48 hours the mountain of freight would continued to grow. Because forwarding agents from all over Europe and, in particular, from the economically strong Rhine-Main region, continued to deliver new shipments by truck. On Saturday afternoon, the crisis committee declared an emergency and imposed a stop on the acceptance of all shipments which did not have a firm booking for the following two days.
At this point in time, the crisis committee had already solved a large number of problems, in order to keep the consequences of the volcanic eruption as low as possible for the customers. Everything that could be carried by truck in addition to the normal truck freight - within Europe around 30 percent of the airfreight is transported by road - was loaded on the articulated trucks. "The forwarding agents gave have us excellent support here", says Dr. Jahnke and was full of praise for the business for the rapid provision of corresponding capacities. The 20 men and women in the Handling, Flight Operations, Communication, Network Planning and Margin Management department, prepared a priority list of the shipments. The 50 tons of flowers from Ecuador which was on board the MD-11 in Curacao could not be saved by the crisis committee. It was left with no other option but to decide where the load should be disposed of. "Instead of flying 50 tons of rotting flowers over the Atlantic to Frankfurt and burning lots of kerosene in the process, in agreement with the authorities there it was decided to fly the flowers back to Quito again", reports Nils Haupt, Director Communications at Lufthansa Cargo.
The crisis managers seriously discussed considerations of how to avoid the ash cloud and temporarily transferring the freight hub to Italy. There, the airports of Milan and Brescia were still open at that time. But the uncertainty about the further spreading of the volcano particles as well as logistical problems caused the plans to be dropped. Neither in Brescia nor in Milan was there sufficient parking space for the aircraft, the freight would have had to be first transported over hundreds of kilometres by truck. And finally the question arose: How do the pilots get to Italy? No aircraft could take off in Frankfurt.
The crisis committee also had to concern itself with "smaller" problems: stranded in transit in the animal station were 23 dogs, ten cats, numerous iguanas, tortoises and snakes as well as two horses which should have flown on to New York. Although the Animal Lounge of Lufthansa Cargo at Frankfurt Airport is one of the most modern and comfortable in the world, a horse now and then needs room to exercise. In particular, when it not at all sure when the onward journey to the USA can finally begin. The crisis committee also found a solution to that: For a few days, the two horses were quartered at a riding centre in the Hintertaunus region.
When the colleagues from Passage finally received the approval from the Federal Ministry of Transport to transfer ten aircraft from Munich to Frankfurt according to visual flying regulations and without passengers and no traces of ash of any kind were to be found on the aircrafts’ outer surfaces or in their engines, the crisis committee focused all its attention on attempting to also get exceptional approvals from the German authorities for commercial cargo flights.
The approval was given on Sunday afternoon at around 15.00 hrs. for a flight to Istanbul, putting the crisis committee under intense pressure. Within just a few hours the freight had to be assembled, a cockpit crew chosen, engineers found for a voluntary Sunday shift and finally the airport operator Fraport had to be activated, in order that, despite the closure of the airport, the Lufthansa Cargo aircraft could be refueled. At about 20.30 hrs., just before dusk, the freighter finally took off and Dr. Andreas Jahnke made three crosses: "This would not have been possible without the crisis committee, and the resulting short decision- making lines between the individual departments".
The first flight of a wide-bodied aircraft supported the assumption that the ash cloud was far less dangerous
than at first assumed. The three engineers who were on board, primarily to carefully check the jet engines and the pitot tubes for speed regulation, were unable to find any particles of ash each after seven hours of night-work. The aircraft returned the next day with 70 tons of freight from Istanbul to Frankfurt. The TV programme ARD-Brennpunkt reported immediately following the landing from the cockpit of the aircraft and Captain Fokko Doyen reported on a "completely normal, totally unspectacular flight". The pressure on the politicians increased.
The crisis committee was pleased about the grating of further exceptional approvals. First, the freshly painted aircraft could be transferred from Hamburg to Frankfurt, it was followed by the aircraft from Krasnoyarsk, Almaty and the USA. There was also approval from the authorities for flights from Frankfurt. For example, an urgently needed shipment of insulin could be taken to Hong Kong. Even before the official lifting of the ban on flights, crisis manager Andreas Jahnke was able to announce "almost normal flight operations once again". The processing of the accumulated mountain of freight took well over a week, however. The crisis committee was then dissolved, and on the following Saturday Dr. Jahnke was able to really catch up on his sleep.
The fact the man with a doctorate in biology has ended up as a logistics expert at Lufthansa Cargo comes as no surprise to the 41-year-old: "Biology and logistics operate only in networks. In the human body", says the biologist Dr. Jahnke, "The trigger A is followed by the logical step B. Otherwise things do not work". It’s no different, emphasizes the logician, in the freight business. "In humans", says Dr. Jahnke, "Anomalies lead, in a worst case scenario, to a heart attack". The Cargo Center in Frankfurt had also been "close to suffering an infarction".