Airlines and Scientists Clash Over the Volcanic Ash Cloud

By Aline Reynolds | April 20, 2010 1:31 pm

800px-Arrivals_board,_Heath

Six days after ash from Iceland’s volcano paralyzed European airspace, aviation experts and academics are arguing over whether the entire mess could have been avoided.

Ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano started to spread across North European skies last week, grounding thousands of domestic and long-haul flights and causing an estimated $1 billion in losses. Today the European Union attempted to get the continent moving again and reopened certain routes, giving millions of stranded passengers a chance to head home and throwing a lifeline to airlines that were hemorrhaging an estimated $250 million a day.

However, this grounding of flights drew sharp rebuke from Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), who argued that the entire mess could have been avoided had the airlines focused on facts and figures on actual damage caused to jet engines by volcanic ash, saying: “Europe was using a theoretical mathematical approach and this is not what you need. We needed some test flights to go into the atmosphere and assess the level of ashes and take decisions” [Reuters]. Unsurprisingly, the European Union’s transit officials have replied that they’re not willing to compromise on passenger safety.

Airlines canceled flights to and from Europe because the silicate particles in volcanic ash are known to create a glass-like coating inside airline engines when they fly through ash clouds. In 1982, more than 200 passengers on a British Airways flight had a narrow escape when the plane lost power in all four engines after flying though an ash cloud over the Indian Ocean. Not willing to risk a repeat of that terrifying incident, the European Union shut down flight routes last Thursday. NATO also limited military exercises after volcanic glass built up in fighter engines.

However, British Airways and Air France-KLM say they have both operated test flights in the region since the eruption, and they report that they encountered no problems due to the ash. Bisgnani argues that this proves that the governments made a mistake imposing a “blanket ban” on air travel in northern Europe. He said decision-makers should consider setting up “corridors” to repatriate the estimated 7 million passengers stranded across the globe [Reuters].

But atmospheric scientists explain that volcanic ash clouds pose a very tricky threat to pilots, who can’t see the clouds of tiny particles. They say that instruments could be installed on airplanes to help pilots detect large concentrations of ash as they fly–the instrument’s warnings would prompt the pilot to drop down to a lower altitude to steer clear of the ash. However, not many of these expensive, specialty detectors currently exist.

Experts add that there’s no guarantee that switching altitudes would give the pilot the all-clear, as changing wind conditions could move the ash to lower altitudes, too. Says aviation engineer Stewart John: “You could think that you’re safe flying along at 20,000 feet rather than up at 40,000 where the ash is, only to find that the wind has suddenly dropped and the ash is now at 20,000 feet” [Reuters].

Bisignani, meanwhile, argues that there needs to be consensus on what constitutes a safe concentration of ash. Aviation consultant Chris Yates says the volcanic ash guidelines were drawn up by a UN body, the International Civil Aviation Organization. Regulations for grounding the flights to protect them from volcanic ash, Yates says, were based on “experience gained from over 80 incidents between 1980 and 2000 and computer modeling (or) best guestimate” [Reuters].

Related Content:
80beats:In a Warmer World, Iceland’s Volcanoes May Get Even Livelier
Visual Science: Up Close and Personal With Iceland’s Volcanic Eruption
80beats:Icelandic Volcanoes–Disrupting Weather & History Since 1783
80beats: Volcanic Eruption in Iceland Causes Floods, Shuts Down European Air Travel
Bad Astronomy: Iceland Volcano Eruption Making an Ash of Itself
DISCOVER: Disaster! The Most Destructive Volcanic Eruptions in History (photo gallery)

Image: Wikimedia

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Technology
  • NOYB

    “In 1982, almost 800 passengers on a British Airways flight had a narrow escape when the plane lost power in all four engines after flying though an ash cloud over the Indian Ocean.”

    Wildly inaccurate passenger count – 248 passengers and 15 crew don’t add up to 800. Try doing some fact checking before publishing!

    By the way, the really salient point about this whole volcano ash aspect is that the next plane to crash (in Europe presumably) will likely be blamed (quite correctly) on the greed of the airlines flying too soon, when they have no other basis but their own economic agenda to do so. One wonders how long flights will be grounded then – that single volcano has previously erupted frequently over a two year period in the past – so air travle might THEN become a faint memory for many in Europe. THAT is the story!

  • Mildly Irritated

    Good Call NOYB! How about a little focus on the bottom line and more on the fact that people’s lives are at stake. I can just hear there argument now…putting planes back in the air was an “acceptable” risk.

  • acjohnson

    Hopefully watching all air travel in Europe grind to a halt will alert some of the powers that be to start investing a little more into our mass transit should we have a volcano of our own shut down our airways.

  • ChH

    NOYB – It was 248 metric passengers, which converts to almost 800 in English units.
    (dang you beat me to it)

  • Brian Too

    I’d want safety to be the first priority and thus far it has been. When it comes to volcanoes, you could easily have air currents with higher or lower ash concentrations, and it could be dependant upon everything from today’s path of the jet stream, recent precipitation, the status of the erupting volcano, or lots of other things I can’t think of right now.

    The ash scours the windows, causes electrostatic buildup, erodes the turbine blades, melts in the engines, and does endless damage to vital systems. You don’t want that.

    And as bad as it is over continental Europe, at least you have the potential to land. A lot of those cancelled flights are trans-Atlantic and there’s no safe place to put down in a hurry. That was the situation with the BA flight in ’82.

    Having said all that, I’m sure glad I’m not in the middle of a trip, stranded somewhere! That’s gotta suck.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    It’s not true that there have been no facts and figures. You might find this article interesting: The Scientific Debate over the Flight Ban.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    NOYB — you’re right, that was quite a goof. My apologies, and thanks for catching it. I fixed it in the post.

    Eliza, online news editor

  • scott

    Few are trusting scientist anymore…..I know so many people who no longer believe in climate change (man caused)…I have told people for years not to use too much antibacterial products in their homes and was mostly ridiculed for my concern. I think the masses have been sucessfully conditioned by corporations – hence demaning planes fly when scientists warn against it. Even my friend in Hawaii said many people ignored the recent tsunami evacuation – and because the wave that came barely stirred up the water, they shrugged it off and will most likely ignore a future warning. The right wing and corporations have done a brilliant job as branding scientist as untrustworthy to the general public who lack in sufficient science study. It’s as if something catastrophic has to happen before people wake up and demand action/changes be it for safety or environmental.

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