19 April 2010

So Who Will Decide When Its Safe To Fly? The Answer May Surprise You

At this morning's press conference the European Community was adamant that safety was the pre-eminent issue. There is a lot of noise and hot air (in addition to the ash itself) floating around. As I noted yesterday this is not a question of black and white - it is a question of grey and risk.

Will airliners deliberately be flown into ash clouds - no. But what of the risk of flying into air that has "some" ash particles in it? As I noted in my post yesterday this has been done before as ash is present in the atmosphere at almost all times - the issue is the severity/intensity , location and type. So far there is a lack of good ability to examine the dust from space. (As an aside - this comes at a time when the lack of ability to see what's going on in our planet is becoming clearer). So the ability to track the dangerous particles is pretty apparent. Thus this is not an exact science and we don't have the easy ability to determine what is safe.

So if Science cannot give us anything other than "an indication" then who will make the decision?

One more set of factoids for you. The first empirical evidence of the damage that can be done to engines has been a pair of F/A18s operated by the Finnish Air Force they flew into the dust on Thursday and then had their engines stripped down and the blades examined. Here are some pictures for you to see.

The issue facing everyone as we move from a direct safety issue is the long term impact on the equipment. Aircraft Engines are very expensive. Shortening their life has a double impact. The cost of the engines will rise to maintain and repair them. Shortening their life also reduces the available pool of engines. And here is an important issue. The pool of available engines for spares and replacement is actually quite small.

Not surprisingly the two groups that will make the decision will largely be the following:

Aircraft and Engines are often leased (usually separately) so the owners of these engines will be a key decision maker in the overall process. The big guys include ILFC (part of the foundering AIG group) and other independent companies typically bank like. The other group who have a large portfolio are the aircraft financing arms of the manufacturers. Boeing and Airbus. These two groups will likely take a more conservative approach (ILFC and co) or less (Airframe and engine manufacturers).

The other group that will have the most telling impact on the decision will be the insurance companies. Personal risk and airframe/equipment risk.

So there you have it. The politicians and the airlines can argue all they like - the decision is now being debated in the Aircraft owners and the insurance companies. Lloyds in London must be an interesting place right about now



susan said...

This might seem uneducated, but I would think the compressor blades on a jet engine would be the first tell all if the ash is harmful to the engines. Comp-washes and earlier boroscope inspections would ensure the engines are operating safely in the long run. The engines are one of the least of the worries in my mind. The static ports and the erosion on the flight surfaces would be the top of the list. Is there a team of specialists from the FAA looking into this issue from the volcano? Thank you for any reply or comment.

Professor Sabena said...

Susan - correct. So far the only entity to do a detailed examination of their engines (IE strip them down) has been the Finnish Air Force. On the Pitot heads etc - I think we can all remember what happens if they malfunction. Those warning notices on the side of an aircraft are not put there for fun.