The passengers who were just stranded in Seattle are going to be furious about this disaster

As we learned in the early 1900s, the snowglobe is a particularly effective ignition device. When taken out, the fossil fuel burns fast, rendering the compartment far less useful for hanging your coat or purse. The same phenomena occurred on Tuesday on the airline industry.

At approximately 2 a.m. Pacific time, a last-minute burst of hydrogen consumed hundreds of thousands of gallons of jet fuel at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The effect was an unprecedented decrease in air traffic throughout the United States.

The damage was immediate: The Torrance flight path has been shut down through Friday. Because the shuttle has a circumference of 14 miles, similar flight cancellations could be felt across the western United States. Because the trans-Pacific carrier space is controlled by the FAA, Denver International Airport and airport managers in other small West Coast cities were forced to scramble to reroute planes.

Like the energy burn associated with normal fuel consumption, this end-of-week shift in flight paths and fueled hot spots could have a ripple effect, knocking out air traffic control services for days. It will be weeks before the full extent of damages can be determined, but the absence of nearly 3 million travelers could prove particularly problematic.

The effect of this disaster could portend well for some airline sectors. Airlines that actually rely on propane fuel and small engines for maintenance can enter the void in relatively good shape. Because of FAA rules mandating that airports never be left without air traffic control, no airports in the country will have a “full emergency.” A seemingly small factor—the absence of a station staffed entirely by FAA controllers—is enough to derail the national transportation system.

Concerns over high fuel costs, highlighted by the adoption of 787 Dreamliners, have weighed heavily on the airline industry. Indeed, a slowing economy has caused carriers to issue a series of statements hinting at future fare hikes.

The complexity of commercial aviation no doubt will bring a frenzy of public anticipation regarding short-term changes to airline transportation regulations. While it’s easy to focus solely on reports of urgent cancellations, it would be a mistake to forget that this accident is not an isolated event. As with any large, complex infrastructure, the risk of oil spills or tanker fires arises in just about every commercial journey.

Crude oil and jet fuel are not naturally dissimilar fuels, and both offer ample opportunities for fuel spills. A 2011 study by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science looked at 150 tanker spills of all petroleum products between 2007 and 2009 in the United States. It found that more than 50 percent occurred at ports. Sixty-three percent occurred offshore, and another 37 percent occurred at airports and roadways. The underlying cause of nearly half of the releases were related to leaks in tanks.

Because jet fuel, unlike crude oil, is at most 5 percent petroleum and 95 percent hydrogen, in general, hydrogen is easier to break down. Volatile Hydrogen — in the form of vapor — is so naturally flammable that it’s been used as a missile propellant, a firearm propellant, a chemical control mechanism, and the propellant in hair glue.

Because it’s so flammable, only 1 in 100 million U.S. residents have an experience with a hydrogen-fueled automobile. We are reminded of this less often because it would take more than 5 years to build a new generation hydrogen-powered car. The national airlines have a much different, and much more complex, self-image. In order to correct a safety-related risk, retrofit steps would have to be taken by the FAA and airlines. Yet there are current policies in place that don’t encourage airlines to retrofit their fleets—a likely election issue for political candidates. Meanwhile, subsidies to support competitive technologies like electric cars remain mostly in their infancy, giving them an even smaller market share.

For the airline industry, there is one major remedy. It’s called Hydrogen. Hydrogen fuel-cell planes are yet to be developed by commercial carriers, but Rolls-Royce has developed a system with a decent chance of passing regulatory muster by 2020. Some operators in Europe, Japan, the United States, China, and South Korea are looking at these technologies as an alternative to crude oil. Though some new engine concepts are expensive and probably impractical, adoption will get easier with each incremental step.

To get around the political system, however, for pilots and mechanics to invest the $600,000 in investment capital required to make this leap they will need a virtual guarantee that all air travel regulations will ultimately be changed to allow for liquid hydrogen-powered flights. There is only one solution to this generation’s

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