The International Air Transport Association (IATA) called on European governments and air navigation service providers to urgently develop more precise procedures to identify ash contaminated air space and allow more flights. The call came in the wake of 1,000 flight cancellations on Monday (17 May) as a result of the continued volcanic eruptions in Iceland.
“This problem is not going away any time soon. 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 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,” said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s Director General and CEO.
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.
Data Collection and Analysis
“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.
Changing the Decision-making Process
“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,” said Bisignani.
“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?” said Bisignani.
In the US, 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 US 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,” said Bisignani.
“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 dependant on air travel and passengers certainly cannot wait that long for initiatives like the UK’s to be implemented continent-wide,” said Bisignani.
To enhance the industry’s long-term ability to address volcanic ash issues, Bisignani 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,” said Bisignani.
Today Bisignani will meet Roberto Kobeh-Gonzales, President of the ICAO Council and Raymond Benjamin, ICAO Secretary-General.
“It is important that we act urgently and globally to better deal with this crisis and to lay a solid foundation for better decision making in future eruptions. Even as Europe stumbles with its fragmented approach, IATA is working with the global community through ICAO and by tapping into the experience of leading regulators like the US FAA to facilitate harmonized solutions,” said Bisignani.