Eyjafjallajokull: Flights Resume, But Will Safety Be Compromised?
Flights Resume In The Skies Over Europe, But Was The Decision Rushed?
The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) released new guidelines for air travel today, essentially re-opening Britain's airspace after days of zero air travel in the wake of the volcano eruption in Iceland. New guidelines on the use of airspace allow a phased reintroduction from 2200 (UK time) tonight of much of the airspace which was closed due to the volcanic ash plume over the UK. There will continue to be some 'no fly zones' where concentrations of ash are at levels unsafe for flights to take place, but very much smaller than the present restrictions. Furthermore, the Met Office advise that the 'no fly zones' do not currently cover the UK.
CAA notes that the safety of passengers is the agency's overriding priority. But, was the decision rushed?
The aviation authorities say that current international procedures recommend avoiding volcano ash at all times. But, a new standard is now being adopted across Europe. The tolerance levels of air crafts to ash have been re-examined, and manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas. The CAA’s Revised Airspace Guidance will be based on new engine ash tolerance levels and will apply to low ash density areas identified by the Met Office. This information will be circulated on a six hourly basis. Areas where ash levels are at ³ 10-16, plus a sixty mile buffer zone, will remain no fly zones.
In the days following the volcanic eruption underneath Eyjafjallajokull glacier, test flights have been commissioned to probe the potential damage to aircraft engines. It was reported that NATO has flown its F-16 fighter jets through the ash cloud and determined that some of the air crafts have been damaged. These reports were unsupported by commercial airliners that have also commissioned test flights to assess the threat of engine damage. British Airlines, in particular, said its test flights showed no damage from volcanic ash. BA CEO Willie Walsh was on board of the test flight, and observed that "the analysis [the company has] done so far, along side that from other airlines' trial flights, provides fresh evidence the ... blanket restriction on airspace [was] unnecessary."
CAA requires airlines to conduct their own risk assessment and develop operational procedures to address any remaining risks. It appears that CAA is essentially washing its hands and stepping out of the way to let air carriers take charge. But, how much can passengers trust airliners to make meticulous examinations of planes to ensure uncompromised safety? As a reminder, airline industry was reported to be losing $200 million a day in revenue as the result of flight disruptions. The losses among customers are uncountable. Flights around the world are resuming today with a nearly week-long backlog of flights.
Just yesterday, UK National Air Traffic Services has reported that the volcano eruption in Iceland has strengthened and a new ash cloud is spreading south and east towards the UK. Today, the volcanic activity was still reported to be dynamic and the situation was expected to continue to be variable. Under so much pressure to ease the backlog of flights before the next plume of ash closes the airspace across Europe, can airlines be trusted to carry out "intensive maintenance ash damage inspection" before and after each flight and report any ash related incidents the way CAA instruct them? In fact, do they have the time, the resources and the expertise to do so? After all, blanket airspace restrictions are unprecedented and the procedure for handling the current situation is being made up and tested virtually on the go.
Already, guardian.co.uk reports that the European Cockpit Association is warning that attempts to establish safe flying corridors through the ash cloud should not be rushed.
ECA is concerned that such far-reaching decisions would be taken under such enormous human, political and commercial pressures."
Finally, should anything happen to any of the air crafts that resumed flights today, who will be held responsible? The air carriers, or the aviation authorities who have essentially delegated responsibility over flight handling to the airlines? What is your take?