18 April 2010

EU Disharmony Over The Ash. Why The Airlines Should Be Allowed To Fly

That nice fluffy relationship between all the players in this unprecedented situation over the Volcanic Ash from Iceland seems to have dissolved.

The major players are sitting in different corners. The Governments and the ATCs are erring on the side of caution and the Airlines and the now very weary millions of travelers are both confused and in some cases getting pretty angry.

The issue as always is the "shades of grey".

Everyone knows that flying through the ash will result in severed damage to the aircraft's engines. But after the "n" number of parts per million have dissipated that impact decreases to zero. Also the ash is not universal at all altitudes. So the question is WHEN will it be safe to fly the planes and under what rules.

The airlines have decided that they have been waiting long enough and have taken matters into their own hands. Commencing yesterday and continuing today - they have been running some test flights. Air France and its sister carrier KLM along with Lufthansa have all conducted test flights. Further the authorities have permitted some re-positioning flights to take place and BA and other airlines have done this. Both AF/KL and LH are reporting that the aircraft they flew have emerged without any damage.

On both sides of the argument there are good points. The authorities have essentially closed airspace for most of Northern Europe. Was that the right thing to do? Yes absolutely. But can the system run at a lower level of frequency and still be safe? I believe the answer is yes with obviously definitive caveats.

What the airlines want now is to be allowed to start limited service and under an agreed set of rules. Right now the governments are not budging. But I suspect that tomorrow they will have to.

We should point out that every year there are some 50-70 volcanic eruptions. Of which at least 2-3 are of the same type as the Icelandic chappie currently spewing his stuff. Many of these volcanoes erupt for extensive periods of time. Thus the Icelandic event is neither new nor that rare. What is rare is the prevailing weather and atmospheric conditions combined with the severity and timing of the eruption.

For a great resource on this please visit the Smithsonian Institute.

We have to move to a different state. We need to move to a temporary capability that will start to let aircraft fly. This requires the various authorities to agree on the rules. These rules should be related to the data:

Frequency of flights
Current Volcano conditions
Accurate and reliable measurements
Diversion capabilities.

In addition the airlines need to set rules for people to travel. This should include a suspension of the usual rules on DBC and diversion. A certain degree of "at risk" should be exposed to the passengers and they need to be clearly allowed to make their decisions to fly or not. These decisions should not be based solely on their own safety - which should be Government determined - but by the risk of flight delays and possible diversions. If you wish - apply the Ryanair criteria to the flight.

We need to remember that there has and always will be volcanic particles in the atmosphere. The extent to which it represents a risk has to be a standard supported by strong science and hard factual evidence. AS we can see currently at time of writing BA is flying a 747-400 from Heathrow to its maintenance base in Cardiff. To test the conditions.

Let's get back to work.


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