Handling of Grimsvötn volcano erruption criticized
To many, the eruption of Iceland’s Grimsvötn volcano on May 21 brought back memories of 2010’s Eyjafjallajokull crisis, resulting in the six-day closure of European airspace and a loss of more than $1.7 billion. By Friday, it seemed clear that this most recent incident would have far fewer negative implications than last year’s disaster, but criticism of how the situation was handled is bubbling over.
Volcanic ash forced Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport (KIA) to shut down after the eruption, and pilots were instructed to circumvent Icelandic airspace. KIA spokesperson Hjordis Gudmunsdottir said that all international flights in or out of Iceland were initially canceled, but the airport had planned to reopen on May 23.
Icelandic air traffic control operator ISAVIA touts the importance of such precautions. “Due to airborne ash concentration resulting from the 20-km-high eruption plume, aviation safety measures are in effect,” the organization said in a statement during the height of the crisis. “A danger area has been established for all instrument flying that includes the upper-approach airspace for the Keflavik and Reykjavik international airports. Visual flight rule operations are currently not affected.” This danger area proved to be a major point of contention in the days after the incident.
Cautious early closures of airports and the suspension or delay of some services quickly gave way to criticism of how the UK government handled the crisis.
“This latest Icelandic eruption has been a big wake-up call and an important test,” Steve Ridgway, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said in a statement. “While the reduced disruption clearly shows we have moved on, European governments are still not fully aligned when it comes to handling volcanic ash, and forecasts remain over-reliant on a single data source.”
In a meeting with representatives from the Association of European Airlines, the European Commission's transportation chief, Siim Kallas, tried to calm tempers that had blown up about closed airlines and airports. During the meeting, it was pointed out that British Airways flew a test flight through the supposed danger area without experiencing any problems. The heart of the issue, representatives said, was relying on the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre as the only data source.
"Ash danger levels and the data sources used to produce forecasts must be discussed further," Kallas said at the meeting. "The basis for forecasts must be agreed at European level.”
From the start, aviation experts asserted that this eruption would not disrupt air travel as significantly as the Eyjafjallajokull incident. Even so, European air traffic management organization Eurocontrol acknowledged the risk of ash cloud reaching parts of northern Europe. The agency anticipated that ash would arrive in Scotland on May 24 and reach France and Spain on May 26.
As a precaution, some European airlines canceled flights on the morning of May 24. British Airways, for instance, grounded all flights between London and Scotland; Royal Dutch Airlines-KLM has canceled 16 flights between Scotland and northern England. Scottish carriers Loganair and Eastern Airways also grounded numerous flights. Moreover, Emirates SkyCargo suspended some services to Scotland and Sweden on May 24, and the Dubai-based carrier rerouted several passenger flights affected by the volcanic ash.
Although spokesmen from The International Air Transport Association (IATA) praise European authorities for developing a better approach to airspace closures — instead of making decisions without experiential research — they touted the importance of coordinated decision-making at a political level.
“Work over the last year has put in place a European crisis coordination structure that is facilitating a much more effective management of this ash crisis at a working level,” IATA Director General and CEO Giovanni Bisignani said in a statement. “[But] the potential for a patchwork of inconsistent state decisions on airspace management still exists because there is a major disconnect between the improved process and state decisions on airspace availability.”
To Bisignani, it’s all about giving airlines and their clients a unified response. European Transport Ministers should accept “a common process based on airline safety risk assessments for determining whether and when it is safe to fly,” he remarked. “And Europe must urgently follow up on its promise from last year to accelerate the Single European Sky and ensure that safe airspace remains open for business.”