On the edge of chaos: European aviation and disrupted mobilities

Michael O'Regan*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


This article argues that airlines should be viewed through the lens of complexity theory, a complex systems-oriented aviation industry defined by interactions among subsystems that include airports, passengers, airlines and (mobility) policy - the regulations, guidance, design and planning mechanisms that are increasingly part of aviation internalities. Together with air traffic controllers, cabin/ground crew, airport managers, the formation of multiple assemblages of aeromobility have generated the conditions for the industry's survival and expansion; helping to make Europe and its air-space one of the busiest in the world with 150,000 air routes, 150 airlines and 9.5 million annual flights. Within the European Union, the system draws support and governance from the political system since the system sustains and promotes mobilities in contemporary European life - a cornerstone of the modern European Union without borders. From supporting new aircraft innovation through loan guarantees; creating the framework for new powerful institutions such as the European Aviation Safety Agency; and designing new policy directives such as the Single European Sky, aeromobility has entered into the fabric of European life. During April 2010, an Icelandic volcanic eruption created turbulence in the Europe aviation industry, causing disrupted mobilities across the globe. Just as the 2008 financial crisis shook the global economy, exposing the fragility of the foundations of global banking and finance, the eruption exposed the weaknesses of European institutions and the governance framework that regulates the free flow of people, labor and cargo by air. This article reflects on the Eyjafjallajökull event to expose the fragility of the system and argues that decisions made during and after the eruption mask the system's continual vulnerability to exogenous forces. Simplification by experts and other actors such as politicians from outside the system's ecological landscape may thus have long lasting consequences.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-30
Number of pages10
Issue number1
Early online date22 Dec 2010
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2011


  • aviation
  • complex systems
  • Europe
  • Eyjafjallajökull
  • mobilities

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Sociology and Political Science


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