In the wake of 1,000 flight cancellations on Monday, May 17, due to the continued volcanic eruptions in Iceland, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) called on governments in Europe and air navigation service providers to urgently develop more precise procedures to identify ash contaminated air space and allow more flights.
“We have lost confidence in the ability of Europe’s governments to make effective and consistent decisions” said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s director general and CEO. “Using the same data, different countries have come to different conclusions on opening or closing airspace.
“This problem is not going away any time soon,” Bisignani continued. “The current European-wide system to decide on airspace closures is not working. We welcome the operational refinements made by the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) in their theoretical model but we are still basically relying on one-dimensional information to make decisions on a four-dimensional problem. The result is the unnecessary closure of airspace. Safety is always our number one priority. But we must make decisions based on facts, not on uncorroborated theoretical models.”
Bisignani noted some successful exceptions which provide examples to follow. “France has been able to safely keep its airspace open by enhancing the VAAC data with operational expertise to more precisely determine safe fly zones,” said Bisignani. “Today, the UK Civil Aviation, working with the UK NATS (the air navigation service provider), announced another step forward by working with airlines and manufacturers to more accurately define tolerance levels while taking into account special operational procedures. Both are examples for other European governments to follow.”
Bisignani called for more robust data collection and analysis as well as changes in the decision making process. “Numbers show that the current system is flawed,” he said. “ Over 200,000 flights have operated in European airspace identified by the VAAC as having the potential presence of ash. Not one aircraft has reported significant ash presence and this is verified by post-flight aircraft and engine inspections. We must back the theory with facts gathered by aircraft to test ash concentration. France and the UK are showing that this is possible. If European civil aviation does not have the resources, it should look to borrow the test aircraft from other countries or military sources.
“Ultimately the industry needs a decision-making process for ash clouds similar to the one used for all other operational disruptions,” Bisignani continued. “ Every day airlines make decisions whether to fly or not to fly in various weather conditions. Airlines collate the information available and make informed decisions placing safety first and with full access to all the latest weather reporting. Why should volcanic ash be any different?”
In the U.S., which has a lot of experience with volcanic activity, the government identifies a no-fly zone where ash concentration is the highest. For all other areas, it is the responsibility of the airline to decide to fly or not based on the various data sources available. “The U.S. has well-established, safe and effective procedures for tracking the hazards of volcanic ash,” said Bisignani. “In recent years, the industry had no recorded safety incidents from volcanic activity in US airspace. Europe has a lot to learn.”
“Volcanic ash is a new challenge for European aviation. We can understand that systems need to be developed to cope. But what is absolutely inexcusable is the failure of Europe’s governments to act urgently and collectively to provide real leadership in a crisis. We have vast amounts of data from over 200,000 safe flights ready for analysis to support an urgent review of the current processes. European businesses are dependant on air travel and passengers certainly cannot wait that long for initiatives like the UK’s to be implemented continent-wide,” said Bisignani.