Columnist Questions Policy Decisions Regarding Ash Cloud Safety

Here's an interesting take on the recent ash cloud crisis: Travel insurance provider is publicly stating that "safety must be put ahead of profit," and that airlines are pushing for "more lenient guidelines for flying through ash clouds."

After clouds of volcanic ash caused the cancellation of 1,600 flights in Scotland, England and Germany this week, the heads of two of Europe's biggest airlines have questioned the need to close airspace.

Both Ryanair and British Airways flew test flights through areas that Britain's Met Office said contained extremely high densities of ash, without ill effect, the statement claims, adding that Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary went as far as to describe the ash clouds as a myth.

In an opinion piece published on, travel safety specialist Phil Sylvester said, "Mr. O'Leary might be right. I hope he's acting on the advice of his aircraft engineers, but it worries me when travel safety decisions are influenced by people who have one eye on the bottom line."

Sylvester said his concerns were sparked when he read reports that the British Transport Secretary had made changes to guidelines, allowing aircraft to fly under areas of high ash density, after lobbying from the airline chiefs.

"Of the thousands of people inconvenienced by Grimsvotn's eruption, I didn't hear one of them insisting their plane should fly regardless of safety doubts," said Sylvester. "The only people making that demand are the bosses of British Airways and Ryanair.

"These would be the same two businessmen who were part of an industry that incurred losses of $1.7 billion dollars when that other ash cloud closed European airspace in 2010. They are under enormous pressure to make sure that doesn't happen again; the very existence of their businesses depends on it." Sylvester continued.

While acknowledging that it wasn't in the best business interests of the airlines to put passenger safety at risk, Sylvester said he is worried by the apparent process. "We could organize a conga line of scientists from both sides of this argument to take part in an enormous game of 'yes it is safe - no it isn't,' but are you comfortable with profit-and-loss being part of the equation?"

You can read Sylvester's column here, and chime in with your own thoughts below. What do you think about airlines balancing safety and profitability--not to mention getting their customers to their destinations on time?

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