Airlines at odds with regulators over ash risk

THE latest ash cloud crisis may have been averted — but European airspace regulators and airlines remain on a collision course over the risk to air safety from volcanic emissions.

Both British Airways (BA) chief executive Willie Walsh and Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary have expressed concerns about how ash levels were measured in the skies over Scotland and Northern England this week.

BA conducted a 45-minute test flight on Tuesday at different altitudes over the north of England, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh, where the ash cloud was meant to be at its densest. “The simple answer is we found nothing,” Mr Walsh said.

While last year’s eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in April led to the complete closure of air space, this year regulations have been changed and airlines are allowed to fly if they can make a “safety case” to the relevant aviation authority that there is no risk to passengers.

BA wanted to use the test to prove to the British Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) that it was safe to fly through the cloud.

Mr Walsh said: “I think we need to understand the levels of concentration that we are talking about...the levels are absolutely tiny.”

He called for the British authorities to use multiple sources of data when deciding on how to react to ash problems.

British aviation authorities say they have a “much better understanding” of risk from ash clouds this year and are better able to assess the varying density and the possibility of flying under and over the clouds.

The threshold below which flights are allowed is now 20 times greater than last year when ash of more than 200 microgrammes per cubic metre prevented flying. Aircraft can now fly in ash of up to 4,000 microgrammes per cubic metre.

According to British Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, volcanic activity in Iceland is going to be an issue for air passengers in the years ahead.

“My understanding is that we have gone through an unusually quiet period for volcanic eruptions in Iceland over the last 20-odd years and we are moving into a period when there is likely to be significantly more volcanic activity,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ryanair was yesterday claiming that the CAA’s “red zone” was in the “wrong place” on UK Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) and UK Met Office charts published earlier this week. Ryanair called on the CAA to accept that the British predictions were works of fiction.

It ran a flight on Tuesday from Glasgow Prestwick airport to Inverness, Abderdeen and Edinburgh, plotting a route which it said was through the “red zone” of concentrated ash.

The carrier insisted that no engine damage had been sustained, before describing the “red zone” as “a misguided invention”. The Civil Aviation Authority insisted on Tuesday night that the Ryanair flight had not gone through the zone with the highest ash concentration.

A Ryanair spokeswoman said yesterday: “Contributing to the Eurocontrol 8am conference call today, the UKVAAC representative admitted the red zone shown in the UK Met Office charts is “in the wrong place”. This so called ‘red zone’ caused the closure of German airspace to hundreds of flights. This admission comes too late for the thousands of passengers whose flights have already been cancelled.”

While other airlines grounded their flights, Ryanair continued to board passengers at Scottish airports on Tuesday, claiming the airspace was safe, before being forced to cancel services by Irish civil aviation authorities.

For the first time this week, a new committee made up of representatives from the European Commission, the European air traffic controllers (Eurocontrol), the aviation industry and airports oversaw the response to the ash cloud and graded it as low, medium or high risk. However, it is still up to each EU member state to ultimately decide whether or not to restrict flights in its airspace.


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