To fly or not to fly through Icelandic ash cloud

EYJAFJALLAJOKULL continues to spew, causing occasional closure of airports in Iceland and some parts of northern Europe. The good news is that the worst seems over. There is also relief that the twin eruption of nearby Katia volcano – which is potentially more dangerous – is not happening as feared. The bad news is that one never quite knows when Eyjafjallajokull will cease belching out ash completely. The last time it erupted in December 1821, it continued doing so for more than a year.

Passengers numbered in the millions have been affected by airspace closures in Europe. Airlines are reporting early losses to the tune of some US$2 billion. This could not have come at a worse time than when the airlines are beginning to see some signs of economic recovery after a long dry spell of red ink. Other businesses around the world also suffer – as far away as garment manufacturers in Bangladesh with piles of the goods held up at the airport and sushi restaurants in Japan deprived of prized Norwegian salmon.

In the flurry of dust, two issues stand out – safety and compensation, the latter going beyond the obligations of airlines to their customers that are generally covered in the carriage contract and governed by regulations laid down by the relevant authorities.

Instead of praise for the concern over the safety of passengers, the massive airspace shutdown incurred the ire of European airlines and criticism from the International Air Transport Association (Iata). Even as the sky continued to be blanketed with drifting volcanic ash, pressure mounted on governments in the region to lift the “no-fly” restrictions. The contention is that the decision was based on scientific theory – not fact – and there was no real risk assessment.

Iata chief Giovanni Bisignani called the situation “embarrassing, and a European mess.” The airlines joined hands in faulting the governments for reacting too slowly. Mr Bisignani said it did not make any sense that while the airlines were losing millions and more passengers were being inconvenienced, “it took five days to organize a conference call with the ministers of transport.”

In defence, EU Commissioner for Transport Siim Kallas said the matter was not “in the hands of arbitrary decisions” as the lives of people were at stake. Spanish Transport Minister Jose Blanco reiterated that safety must be the main consideration in any decision to reopen the airspace. He said: “We must be prudent and act rigorously. People need to understand that we are working to ensure their safety even if this causes numerous problems and heavy losses.”

Are Iata and the airlines driven by the concern about losing even more millions so soon after the global economic meltdown? Yet if confronted, airlines will not hesitate to affirm that they will never compromise on the safety of their passengers and crew. And there is no reason to doubt that.

So what really is the issue?

In the absence of scientific data, the legislators chose to err on the conservative. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which operates the International Airways Volcano Watch system, has recommended the implementation of a no-fly zone if volcanic ash is detectable in airspace. But the council has clarified that final decisions about safety rest with the governments.

However, the operators insisted that safety decisions must be based on fact, not theoretical modeling. They claimed that test flights conducted by Iata members subsequently showed no irregularity, so the models were wrong and that there were indeed safe areas to fly. It is easy to forget that the prerogative to decide comes with moral responsibility for its outcome.

Faced with the prospect of another round of deep financial loss, airlines may find it expedient to blame a third party for their misfortune and gain some sympathy for their woes. Mr Bisignani said governments “must take their responsibility” and consider ways to compensate the airlines for lost revenue, particularly when, in his opinion, the situation has been “exaggerated by (their) poor decision-making process.” British Airways has echoed the same message to the UK government.

In response, the EU Commission said it was prepared to authorize exceptional financial aid to airlines. Governments are recognizably not in an enviable position as ultimately they may feel obligated to bail out businesses whose failure may have wider national implications than the mere fallout of just another commercial enterprise.

In adversity, unity. Unfortunately, this does not look to be the case as governments are pitched against airlines in the decision to fly or not to fly through the Icelandic ash cloud. What matters now is how much better prepared we will be the next time it happens, through a more coordinated approach and accelerated review of standards for volcanic ash conditions as the EU works towards a single regulator for the common European sky. And we rest comforted by the common commitment of both airlines and governments to place safety before all else.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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