Thursday, April 22, 2010

Recriminations fly as flights resume

Flights began to resume at airports across Europe Wednesday though it may take much time to clear the backlog of thousands of passengers still stranded around the world. British Airways has said it may take weeks for flights to return to normal following five days of disruption brought about after airspace was closed over much of Europe due to a cloud of ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. As passengers began to resume their journeys there have been bitter accusation from airlines that the shutdown was unnecessary and amounted to over-cautiousness on the part of air authorities and government.


Some airlines are seeking compensation from governments over the disruption with some estimating cost running into billions of dollars. "For an industry that lost $9.4 bn last year and was forecast to lose a further $2.8 bn in 2010, this crisis is devastating," the the International Air Transport Association [IATA] chief Giovanni Bisignani said. "Airspace was being closed based on theoretical models, not on facts." He said the situation had been exacerbated by "poor decision-making" from governments and called on them to offer compensation. "I am the first one to say that this industry does not want or need bailouts. But this crisis is not the result of running our business badly," Bisignani said.

Other airlines have also called for a review of EU passenger compensation rules, which require them to provide accommodation for those prevented from flying. In particular Ryanair's chief executive Michael O'Leary said it was "absurd" that his firm had to spend thousands of euros on someone whose ticket might have cost only a few euros. 

However there have been more pragmatic responses. Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson told the BBC that he believed governments would be unlikely to impose a blanket ban again. "I think if they'd sent up planes immediately to see whether the ash was actually too dangerous to fly through or to look for corridors where it wasn't very thick, I think that we would have been back flying a lot sooner," he said.

Scientists defend ban

Scientists have said there were few options after the massive ash cloud began to spread over Britain and towards Europe. Henri Gaudru, the president of the European Volcanological Society, said, "This was not an over-reaction. We... do not know enough about these clouds and what can happen to planes flying into them," he told a news conference in Geneva. Safe particulate levels have yet to be established, though it is known that volcanic ash can pose a hazard.

As the recent cloud spread across northern Europe several NATO jets returned to base with serious problems and damage to their engines. And there are further historical references. In 1982 a British Airways 747 lost power to all four engines after flying through a volcanic cloud and dropped 24,000 feet [7 km] before regaining control. There was also an incident on the 15th December 1989 when KLM Flight 867, a B747-400 from Amsterdam to Anchorage, Alaska, flew into the plume of the erupting Mount Redoubt, causing all four engines to fail.

Volcanic ash is made up of fine particles of rock and glass. It is also very sharp and jagged. Flying into a cloud of volcanic ash can sandblast a cockpit window far more seriously than sand, which are more spherical in shape. But the danger comes from such particles which are often only 10 microns in size, entering jet engines. The very high temps generated by the engines can melt the glass which can in turn clog vents and cause engines to stall.

Tests prove difficult

But it it is the concentration levels at which this becomes a risk that has yet to be established. While some conducted tests of their own over the weekend none of them had scientific measuring equipment on board and could not have assessed whether they had flown thrown high levels of ash or not. On Sunday, the Met Office and two UK universities, Reading and Hertfordshire, set out to test the air with balloons using a newly developed sensor that can detect the fine dust that is the cause of the concern. It is more dangerous than the thick dust seen in photographs for the simple reason that to the naked eye it is indistinguishable from light cloud, or is totally invisible. It does not show up on ordinary radar but some laser systems have had some success. Commercial airliners do not have this fitted and it is not considered totally reliable.

But even these tests proved difficult to mount. The Met Office said, "The RAF helicopter scrambled at the weekend to transport the scientists and equipment to fly to Scotland at low level under the ash plume had to be grounded, forcing a long journey through the night by road for scientists from Reading University, the Met Office in Exeter and Lincolnshire."

The tests "clearly showed a 600 metre thick layer of dust at a height of 4 km [13,000 feet]. The layer was found to contain highly abrasive dust particles, at concentrations of a third of a milligram of dust in each cubic metre. While the amount sounds small, a typical jet engine would ingest some 60,000 million of these particles every second."

While some criticism was directed at the government, they themselves take advice from air traffic services such as NATS in Britain and Eurocontrol which covers European airspace. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was well within its rights to step in to sort out the ash cloud aviation crisis, air safety experts have said. The air traffic control company NATS had also "acted logically" in shutting down airspace, David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine said. But he added that in hindsight it might be shown that NATS could have kept some services open.

Hindsight may help to provide a convenient scapegoat for the crisis, whether it is NATS, Eurocontrol, the CAA or government authorities. It may be the case as some have suggested that these bodies did not act quickly or decisively enough in launching their own test flights to assess the risks. The fact remains that the situation was unprecedented. Volcanic clouds of such a scale have not affected such a wide region of airspace before. While the costs of shutting European airspace may exceed several billion dollars, this is perhaps better than risking the hundreds of lives that may have been put in jeopardy should flights been allowed to continue. 

Meanwhile, the CAA have issued new guidelines which effectively increase tolerance levels, though in turn this may increase risks. "The major barrier to resuming flight has been understanding tolerance levels of aircraft to ash," the CAA said. "Manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas." The new volcanic ash tolerance level set by the CAA is a concentration of 0.002 grams per cubic metre at regular cruise altitudes. Any airspace with a greater ash concentration is a no-fly zone.

However, the European Union's aviation authorities, Eurocontrol and the European Aviation Safety Agency, will now need to establish whether the data from the handful of test flights is sufficient to establish the new tolerance level as a European standard. If it is, it will then go forward to the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization for consideration as a global standard [Chief Officers / Channel 4 / New Scientist].

Criticism of media coverage has also surfaced. Siim Kallas, Vice-President of the European Commission, wrote to the Financial Times on Thursday saying that some of its reporting was "grossly inaccurate." Describing the situation faced by airline in the last week as unprecedented, Kallas said member states were "absolutely right to react as they did in applying the model and procedures agreed for the European area in line with International Civil Aviation Organisation guidelines." 

It was also clear that a more differentiated approach was needed and that no member state acting independently could take the first step to introduce change, Kallas states. This was why the European Commission together with the Spanish presidency and Eurocontrol therefore came together to propose a co-ordinated European approach, the European Vice-President adds. "Without European Commission facilitation, large parts of Europe's airspace would still remain unnecessarily closed," Kallas argues, while emphasizing that the commission's primary concern was to uphold the rights of the passengers and to get industry back in the air while observing very difficult safety constraints.

Flights resume

The European air traffic agency Eurocontrol said it expected "almost 100%" of flights to operate in the continent on Thursday. However, a fresh volcanic ash alert has led Australian airline Qantas to cancel one flight out of London and delay another for 11 hours until early Thursday, infuriating passengers. At London's Heathrow Airport, Europe's busiest, traffic ran at 90% normal service on Wednesday. Many night flights are being allowed temporarily to help clear the backlog of stranded passengers.

Transatlantic services have returned to their normal level, with 338 flights arriving in Europe on Wednesday, according to Eurocontrol. German airline Lufthansa said it would fly at full capacity by operating about 1,800 flights on Thursday, up from about 700 on Wednesday. Air France said its long-haul flights were now departing as normal. Denmark, Norway and Sweden have lifted their no-fly bans, but some airspace restrictions remain over Finland and some remote Scottish isles. Meanwhile in Iceland, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano continues to erupt, but it is no longer spewing out ash into the atmosphere. "There is much, much less ash production and the plume is low," Gudrun Nina Petersen of the Icelandic Met Office said [BBC].


The biggest repercussion from the airspace shut down has been the financial cost. Holiday makers and the tourist industry has been particularly affected, but business travel and exports have also been severely disrupted. Even just a few days into the chaos Kenya and Zambia reported problems as fresh vegetables and flowers rotted in warehouses as suppliers faced an uncertain future. The International Air Transport Association has estimated the loss to the airline industry alone at around $1.7 trillion in relation to the Icelandic ash cloud. The true cost to business may never be established. 

While some are adding up the cost some in parts of Europe will be sweeping up the ash, some of which has left a thin film on vehicles. Callers to BBC London's Vanessa show on Wednesday morning talked of a red dust settling on their cars which proved difficult to remove. Many also spoke of having suffered from dry throats and a cough since Thursday. Volcanic ash can cause such problems, though much of the advice so far issued suggests the health risks are small. Removing it from vehicles could pose a problem for some as it is abrasive [USGS]. 

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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