Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Airlines to European Airspace Regulators: Get Your Ash in Gear

As noted here the other day, the volcanic ash problem from that volcano in Iceland that nobody can pronounce and whose indecipherable spelling I am tired of looking up, the problem is not going away any time soon. We may be looking at a year or more of on-again, off-again volcanic ash-cloud drifts disrupting air traffic.

Yesterday alone, another 1,000 flights were canceled. Dealing with volcanic ash may well be the "new normal" in travel to and from western Europe.

Well now. The airlines are finally speaking with a unified voice, following incremental complaints by airlines such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

The International Air Transport Association issued a statement today calling for European regulators to get their act together on this matter.

"This problem is not going away any time soon," it says. "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 statement quotes the IATA director, Giovanni Bisignani: "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."

For those who want to see the full text, rather than some truncated paraphrase, here is the remainder of the statement from IATA:


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. 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,” said Bisignani.

Bisignani called for (1) more robust data collection and analysis (2) a change in the decision making process and (3) urgency in addressing the issues.

"Numbers show that the current system is flawed. 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," said Bisignani [who added]:

"We have lost confidence in the ability of Europe’s governments to make effective and consistent decisions. Using the same data, different countries have come to different conclusions on opening or closing airspace.

“Ultimately the industry needs a decision-making process for ash clouds similar to the one used for all other operational disruptions. 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. 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. The UK is finally moving in the right direction. But what about the other affected European governments? The next transport ministers meeting is scheduled for June 24. What kind of leadership waits more than a month to make crisis decisions? European businesses are dependent on air travel and passengers certainly cannot wait that long for initiatives like the UK’s to be implemented continent-wide."

Bisignani said he is traveling to Montreal for urgent meetings with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). "IATA and ICAO have been working intensely on this issue since the crisis first struck in April. IATA is strongly supporting the ICAO task force which is reviewing ash tolerance thresholds with operators and manufacturers. The responsibility of manufacturers is critical in providing performance information to back decisions," he said.

Tomorrow Bisignani will meet Roberto Kobeh-Gonzales, President of the ICAO Council and Raymond Benjamin, ICAO Secretary-General.


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