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The sky is falling! NO… it’s volcanic ash from Iceland

Written by editor

Is Anyone in Charge?

Is Anyone in Charge?
Iceland recently hosted an international conference at the Keilir Aviation Academy on the complex problems created by the now infamous Eyjafjallajokull volcano that erupted in April/May 2010. The conference participants and attendees included the President of Iceland, representatives included the Icelandic Ministry of Transport, the Civil Aviation Administration, participants ISAVIA, international meteorological government agencies, the Institute of Earth Sciences, Icelandair, ICAO, IATA, AEA, IFALPA, EUROCONTROL, CANSO, embassy representatives from the United States, Russia and other European cities, executives from airlines, airports, aircraft manufacturing, and pilots, plus many others whose specialties focus on forecasting weather, setting policy and procedures for natural disasters. Everyone had a connection to volcanic eruptions and the resulting economic, social and security disruptions.

Crystal Balls Don’t Work
Volcanoes are unlike other environmental conditions that impact on government, industry, trade and consumers as it is very difficult to accurately predict the exact time one will erupt. Through a combination of science and technology, scientists are able to track the source and path of a hurricane or tornado, but there is absolutely no technology that absolutely determines when volcano eruptions will occur and when they will stop.

No one knows how high the ash will go, how long the ash will remain in the atmosphere, and “exactly” the route the ash will follow as the winds move the airborne debris from one part of the world to another. In addition, according to the Smithsonian, “…there is currently no standardized international volcano alert levels system;” therefore the people and industries impacted by the cranky volcano are unable to adequately prepare for the episode and the chaos that follows.

What we do know, as a result of the recent Iceland eruption, is that this unplanned, unscheduled, uncontrollable geological force has scientists, meteorologists, aircraft designers, engineers, airline pilots, airport administrators, world-noted tourism experts, ground transportation operators and hoteliers perplexed, anxiously searching for ways to determine if planes can / should fly when the ash particles are floating in the air, and what to do with the people who are stranded at airports, train stations, hotels, business centers and what to tell exporters and importers as their merchandise rots in containers.

Risky Business
When a government agency tells the airline industry and airports to issue a “ground stop,” ceasing all air travel to/from airports, the costs are uncontrollable. The now notorious Eyjafjallajokull volcano let loose in the spring, spewing forth vast amounts of ash that surrounded Europe, resulting in the closure of 313 European airports (80 percent of the network), disrupting the travel plans of approximately 7 million people and upsetting global supply routes at a loss of US$5.0 billion according to Oxford Economics, with estimated additional loss in visitor spending in the range of US$4.2 billion.

Global GDP losses (i.e., lost wages, destruction of perishable cargo, just-in-time production) are estimated at US$4.7 billion. Robert Evans of Thomson Reuters noted that the disruption was “…the largest breakdown in European civil aviation since World War II.” Although this volcano eruption is considered by experts to have been “significant” there is concern that if (when) a number of “…other currently dormant or mildly active volcanoes in Europe, Latin America, Asia and Far Eastern Russia were to erupt…” the situation would be worse.

Getting Ready for Prime Time
“The European aviation system is not ready (for)…disruption,” according to Jean-Pierre Mesure of Direction Generale de l’Aviation Civile (DGAC) France. Without prior experience, there was no primer for reference and there were no experts to consult. Mesure determined that there was “no technical data about aircraft tolerance to ash ingestion.” In addition, there was no coordination between organizations and authorities, and “…unclear responsibilities between States and European bodies.” Looking forward, Mesure calls for improved satellite imagery, data collection and communications with crew and maintenance engineers as well as reliable research to determine the effects of volcanic ash on aircraft.

Enough Blame for Sharing
At the Keflavik conference, the airlines criticized the government agencies for not fully grasping the scientific and economic facets of the volcanic eruption, while scientists blamed inadequate technology, and others pointed figures at the engineers for not developing airlines adequate to the ash challenge. The airlines thought that less drastic measures would have been sufficient and attributed the ground-stop decision to the government agencies practicing risk-aversion rather than risk-management.

Protect Your Assets
According to the Association of European Airlines, an organization representing 35 airlines, carrying 340million passengers, coordinating 11,200 daily flights to 630 destinations in 160 countries, generating in excess of 70 Billion Euros and employing 383,000 people, the European government agencies abdicated decision – making responsibility to the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center (VAAC) in London. Ulrich Schulte-Strathus, Secretary General of AEA claims that the decision was based on computer models and not an adequate amount of “real- time data,” that resulted in decisions supportive of “political-safety” rather than aviation and consumer safety.

Acts of God or Acts of Government
Schulte-Strathus also finds that the past has not improved the present and “data quality remains insufficient.” While it is true that the differentiated zone approach used by ECTL and EASA is very complex and various interpretations persist, there is a need to develop a reality-based system that will ensure a workable crises management network. He finds that the airlines compensated customers for the event which was an “Act of God,” and therefore not usually covered by airline policy. He also questions whether passengers should be paid for “Acts of Government” and who should be held financially accountable.

Sooner Not Later
All participants at the congress agreed on the need for more and better information so that industry executives could respond appropriately to volcanic eruptions and the impact of volcanic ash. They called for a better understanding of the physics of volcanic ash, the results of ash on jet aircraft and engines, and for modeling and measurement of its dispersion in the atmosphere. There is also a need for clarification as to the roles and responsibilities of all government agencies and private sector organizations impacted by the incident so that confusion, chaos and financial hardships are minimized.

Tourism Sector
Professor Geoffrey Lipmann, Special Adviser to the UNWTO Secretary-General, United Nations World Tourism Organization, discussed the importance of air transportation to the economics of international tourism, and called upon the entire hospitality, travel and tourism industry to get involved in developing policy and procedures that will assist and facilitate the movement of people stranded by a ground-stop.

Flying as a Necessity
The aviation industry provides global social and economic benefits that cannot be underestimated. According to Oxford Economics, the aviation industry supports nearly 8 percent of the world’s economy and accounts for 33 million tourism-related jobs, and adds US$1.5 billion to GDP. However, the airline industry and the airports do not operate in a vacuum, and there is a need to address a “ground-stop” in the full context of the hospitality, travel and tourism industry.

Icelandair: Do Not Waste a Good
According to Birkir Holm Gudnason, CEO and Hilmar B. Baldrusson, VP Flight Operations, Icelandair, 85 percent of its flight schedule was maintained by moving operations (including 200 ground and cabin crew) to Glasgow. The entire focus of the Crises Committee (CEO, VPs, Directors, Flight and Ground Operations, Maintenance, Sales, Marketing and Public relations) was to “Keep up network operations.” Passengers were updated via call centers, Twitter, and Face Book, as well as local media, offices and airports.

Inclusive Not Exclusive
It has been suggested that airlines rethink their mission statement: safely, efficiently and effectively transporting people from point A to point B. When a ground-stop is ordered, and passengers are backed-up at airports and other feeder transportation hubs, hotels, and business centers, the responsibility for the care of these people-in-transit requires the active participation of all industry segments. At this time, members of the hospitality, travel and tourism industry, trade associations and government tourism agencies are not integrated into the discussions for developing plans and policy during ground-stop emergencies. Without the involvement of all industry segments, the planning process will never be adequate.

Collaboration and/or Communication
Steven Creamer, Director, Europe, Africa and Middle East Regional Office for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) places importance on collaboration not just communication and suggests the replacement of “urgency” with “importance.”

Captain Jorg Handwerg of the German Air Line Pilots’ Association expressed concern about the decision-making process. “We’re not willing to take all the risks on our shoulders or to fight with employers because we’re not willing to fly. The pilot is responsible so there must be a limit as to what flights you are allowed to take.” While Captain Handwerg believes that “Making (the)…decision is the role of the regulator,” at the end of the day, the lives of passengers are in the hands of the pilot and crew. The entire chain of command, and all entities that are part of the problem, have to be integrated into the decision making process which ultimately can be the difference between life and death.

While ongoing meetings, conferences and seminars for the scientific and aviation communities are planned, the question remains as to whether the current players are boundary-spanners or primarily interested in maintaining personal silos. The safety, security of everyone that flies is now in the hands of people who may have their own best interests at heart.