Friday, April 16, 2010

Second-Guessing on Shutting Down Air Traffic in Europe

Was this really necessary? And what happens if the Iceland volcano continues to erupt and spew ash for days or weeks?

As airports in England, France and elsewhere in Europe remain closed today because of volcanic ash in the skies, some skepticism is arising about the decision to shut down air travel in western Europe. The UK, where the days of the Battle of Britain are a fading memory, is no stranger to hysterical over-reaction to air-travel threats, of course.

In Britain, the National Air Traffic Service (NATS) rejected assertions that it had overreacted. "Safety is our main priority and volcanic ash is a serious threat to aircraft," a spokesman said, according to the Times of London.

NATS, which operates commercial air traffic in the UK, is a private corporation. It would seem in general that a private corporation, exposed to civil liability, would be cautious in deciding when planes could fly under potentially hazardous conditions in the skies.

Air traffic in England and Wales remains shut down till at least 7 a.m. Saturday and possibly beyond. Some international flights have been allowed to operate in Northern Ireland and Scotland as the ash cloud drifts southeast beyond the British Isles. Twenty airports in France, including those in Paris, also remain closed till tomorrow morning at 7, and possibly beyond.

In Iceland, the volcano continued to erupt today. "It is more or less the same situation as yesterday, it is still erupting, still exploding, still producing gas," University of Iceland professor Armann Hoskuldsson told Reuters. "We expect it to last for two days or more or something. It cannot continue at this rate for many days. There is a limited amount of magma that can spew out."

Obviously, aircraft are in danger flying through particulate-heavy volcanic ash.

But what exactly is the science here, and where do politics intrude, if at all?

This today from the Sydney-based Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, a pretty strong voice in international air travel. CAPA, which represents airlines and others with obvious financial interests in keeping planes flying, bluntly describes the reaction in Europe as "paranoia." Here's the statement:

"Much of European airspace is closed for today at least. Within Europe the scene is casual chaos. Not only are travelers and flights grounded in several major European city, but it will take days to restore schedules, even if the scare is called off today. And in points as far away as Australia and Argentina, aircraft bound for Europe have been grounded too.

Is this a massive over-reaction of super-cautious politicians and bureaucrats who are far more concerned about their own liability – while suffering none of the financial carnage that this will cause the airlines and their feeding chain? Or is it a genuinely serious event that justified shutting down most of Europe's airspace. ...

If the closures continue for up to three days, the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) estimates some six million passengers will be affected - probably forfeiting their flights; as an "Act of God," the volcano's impact nullifies insurance claims for canceled flights.

EUR120 million was wiped off the value of Ryanair and Aer Lingus yesterday, with their share prices each falling 1.4% yesterday in what was otherwise a healthy day for European stock markets.

British Airways and easyJet fell 0.2% and 0.3% respectively, while Nordic airline stocks suffered, with SAS and Norwegian falling 3.9% and 3.2%, respectively. Aeroflot was 2.1% lower."

Here is the latest NATS statement on the Icelandic volcanic eruption, posted at 02:30, Friday 16-Apr-2010:

"The cloud of volcanic ash continues to cover much of the UK and the eruption in Iceland continues. Following a review of the latest Met Office information, NATS advises that restrictions will remain in place in UK controlled airspace until 19:00 (UK time) today, Friday 16-Apr-2010, at the earliest.

However, flights in Northern Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland to and from Glasgow and Prestwick may be allowed up to 1300 (UK time) today, subject to individual coordination. North Atlantic traffic to and from Glasgow, Prestwick and Belfast may also be allowed over the same period.

We will review further Met Office information and at 0830 (UK time) we will advise on the arrangements that will be in place until 0100 (UK time) on Saturday, 17 April.

In general, the situation cannot be said to be improving with any certainty as the forecast affected area appears to be closing in from east to west. We continue to work closely with airports, airlines, and the rest of Europe to understand and mitigate the implications of the volcanic eruption.""

An earlier (14:00, 15-Apr-2010) NATS statement noted, "in line with international civil aviation policy, no flights other than agreed emergencies are currently permitted in UK controlled airspace…We continue to work closely with airports, airlines, and the rest of Europe to understand and mitigate the implications of the volcanic eruption."

Back to the CAPA statement:

"The question is, what happens if Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull glacier volcano keeps on erupting - for days, or weeks? The Vatnajokull eruption in Iceland in the 1990s (a similar event under a much bigger glacier) led to minimal disruption, apart from a short period when the eruptions began, with aircraft routed around the area. It certainly did not lead to region-wide closures of air space. Such has the paranoia around safety and security grown since September 11.

Recovery in the key trans-Atlantic business market (the lifeblood for many European and US long-haul airlines) is still elusive, while short-haul premium demand within Europe continues to contract. Airlines finances, particularly in Europe, remain fragile, and airline managements will be hoping the ash – and the attendant paranoia – settles quickly.



Dream Liner said...

Maybe you're right, however, as the Finnish Air Force is finding out, there might be some true risk:

See also said...

Re DreamLiner comment. I'm not agreeing necessarily with the Asia Pacific airline group. I simply don't know. I am just giving their position an airing that I know it won't get in the mainstream media, which as usual is in lockstep with the commonly accepted wisdom.