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.
Don’t be fooled by the name—Iceland is one of the hottest hotspots in the world, geologically speaking. The island’s volcanic legacy reared its head again yesterday as a massive eruption by a volcano beneath a glacier caused the evacuation of hundreds of residents and created ash clouds that delayed flights all around Northern Europe.
The volcano, called Eyjafjallajokull, rumbled last month, but that was nothing like this. “This is a very much more violent eruption, because it’s interacting with ice and water,” said Andy Russell, an expert in glacial flooding at the University of Newcastle in northern England. “It becomes much more explosive, instead of a nice lava flow oozing out of the ground” [AP]. The flood caused by melted glacial ice caused the evacuation about 800 people. Waters threatened to spill over onto Highway 1, Iceland’s main highway that makes a circuit around the island. But some quick digging by construction crews altered the course of the water.
We gave the BBC a hard time this morning for going a little overboard in declaring the Large Hadron Collider a broken-down mess. But here’s something cool: In a new documentary, a team simulated the blast that “Underwear Bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to create on Christmas Day last year. Their finding: Even if he had blown up the bomb successfully, it wouldn’t have been enough to take down flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit.
Dr John Wyatt, an international terrorism and explosives adviser to the UN, replicated the conditions on board the Detroit flight on a decommissioned Boeing 747 at an aircraft graveyard in Gloucestershire, England [BBC News]. Wyatt used the same amount of the explosive pentaerythritol that the bomber carried, about 80 grams, which packs about the punch of a hand grenade. They put it on the same seat and lit off a controlled explosion, which sent a shock wave through the aluminum exterior.
Remember the embarrassment that the Transportation Security Administration suffered last month, when a bout of lax editing allowed the TSA standard operating manual to leak across the Web? Last week, the TSA inflicted another public relations snafu upon itself. Agents subpoenaed two travel bloggers who published the organization’s temporary procedures in the wake of the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing, only to drop the subpoenas shortly thereafter.
The document, which the two bloggers published within minutes of each other Dec. 27, was sent by TSA to airlines and airports around the world and described temporary new requirements for screening passengers through Dec. 30, including conducting “pat-downs” of legs and torsos. The document, which was not classified, was posted by numerous bloggers. Information from it was also published on some airline websites [Wired.com]. Still, the TSA (which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS) decided to target the two bloggers, Chris Elliott and Steven Frischling, to make them reveal who leaked the information to them. And the strong-arm tactics the agency used quickly made it look draconian and repressive.
Air travelers around the country saw their flights delayed this morning, thanks to a computer glitch. The problem, which occured [sic] in the Atlanta-based computer system that provides data about flight plans, has forced air controllers to input the information manually, said Arlene Salac, FAA spokeswoman in New York [Reuters].
The Federal Aviation Administration tried to assure travelers that the problem wasn’t a safety concern; rather it fouled up ground stops and caused delays. The problems began a little after 5 a.m. Eastern time, and hit Atlanta’s busy airport the hardest. One passenger said that a Delta Air Lines gate agent had announced that the glitch prevented pilots from accessing flight plans, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported [The New York Times].
The computer problem has been fixed, though FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said she doesn’t know how many flights have been affected [MSNBC]. And today’s glitch was the second such one in 15 months.
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Image: flickr/ eschipul