As I've been pointing out here since last week, there is serious concern in the aviation industry that the shutdown of air travel in Europe may have been a gross overreaction by governmental agencies and, in the case of the UK where the panic began, by a private company that manages Britain's air traffic.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) today sharply criticized "European governments" for what the airline trade group called "their lack of leadership in handling airspace restrictions." IATA urged "a re-think of the decision-making process."
The IATA CEO, Giovanni Bisignani, said in a statement: "We are far enough into this crisis to express our dissatisfaction on how governments have managed it -- with no risk-assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership. This crisis is costing airlines at least $200 million a day in lost revenues and the European economy is suffering billions of dollars in lost business. In the face of such dire economic consequences, it is incredible that Europe’s transport ministers have taken five days to organize a teleconference."
He was referring to a contentious teleconference over the weekend involving European air transport officials and Eurocontrol, the agency that controls air space on the Continent.
In his statement, Bisignani four times invoked the concept of risk-management. He criticized Europe’s closing airspace "based on theoretical modeling of the ash cloud."
Rather than governments doing what governments should do, which is take sensible responsibility for their air space, "it has been the air-navigation service providers who announced that they would not provide service," Bisignani said, in an apparent reference to NATS, the private company in Britain that manages UK air space. NATS led the shutdown last week as volcanic ash drifted toward the British Isles from Iceland.
IATA called on European governments to "agree on ways to flexibly re-open airspace." He said that "risk-assessments should be able to help us re-open certain corridors, if not entire airspaces."
Several European airlines have now conducted test flights at various altitudes, up to 41,000 feet, in various corridors. "The results have not shown any irregularities or safety issues," said Bisignani. Among options being explored by airlines as the ash cover lingers over sections of European skies are day flights using visual flight rules, rather than instrument flying. Also, Bisignani said, airlines are considering "specific flight corridors, special climb-and-descent procedures, and more frequent detailed boroscopic engine inspections to detect damage."
In Britain, Willie Walsh, the CEO of British Airways, took part in a two-hour test-flight yesterday. Walsh, a pilot, said that British Airways' tests provided "fresh evidence that the current blanket restrictions on airspace are unnecessary." He added, according to the Times of London, "we believe airlines are best positioned to assess all available information and determine what, if any, risk exists to aircraft, crew and passengers." BA is asking the government for a bailout after losing about $124 million so far in the airspace shutdown.
As noted here last week after the British company NATS shut down the UK air space that also serves as the most important gateway to Europe, airlines in Asia, where volcanic disruptions are more common than in Europe, immediately warned that the Europeans might be overreacting. "Is this a massive overreaction by supercautious politicians and bureaucrafts who are far more concerned about their own liability?" the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, representing Asian carriers, said in a statement last week.
Bisignani said, "We have seen volcanic activity in many parts of the world, but rarely has it resulted in airspace closures, and never at this scale. When Mount St. Helens erupted in the U.S. in 1980, we did not see large-scale disruptions, because the decisions to open or close airspace were risk-managed with no compromise on safety."
IATA called on Eurocontrol to establish a "volcano contingency center capable of making coordinated decisions" and asked for an immediate meeting of the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization "to define government responsibility for the decisions to open or close airspace in a coordinated and effective way, based on real data and special operating procedures."
Stand by for more major flap on this one, as the world media finally come to terms with the story of the overreaction that shut down air travel in Europe, and stranded hundreds of thousands of people. And the bills are only starting to arrive.