29th Mar 2020

Europe scales down response to ash cloud

  • Stranded passengers at Frankfurt airport (Photo: Travel Aficionado)

Parts of Europe will be re-opened for flights on Tuesday as ministers agreed to narrow down the no-fly zones around the Icelandic ash cloud, amid mounting pressure from airlines and experts saying the complete closure was exaggerated.

After a four-hour long conference call on Monday (19 April), the 27 transport ministers agreed to carve out three safety zones and ban planes from flying only through the cloud itself and with specific restrictions in a buffer-zone around the ash plume. The pollution-free zones will meanwhile be opened without any restrictions.

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The exact carve-out is to be drawn up by Tuesday morning in the Brussels-based headquarter of Eurocontrol, the agency pooling and co-ordinating data from 38 national air traffic controllers.

The Scandinavian countries, eastern and southern Europe are likely to resume all flights, while Britain, Ireland and the Benelux will probably continue to impose some restrictions, Bo Redeborn from Eurocontrol said at a press briefing.

Currently, 18 states have partial or total fly bans. But Mr Redeborn said this reaction was exaggerated, although understandably, due to the unprecedented scale of the ash cloud formed after a volcanic eruption in Iceland last Wednesday.

The risk entailed by volcanic ash is that it can melt into glass and damage the jet's engine. A Nato fighter jet flying through the cloud reported such problems, although it managed to land safely.

However, several airliners, such as Lufthansa and Air France-KLM, ran some 40 test flights in cloud-adjacent areas and experienced no problems, voicing their anger against the fly ban which saw them lose hundreds of millions of euros a day.

The umbrella association of all air companies, IATA, accused the EU of dragging its feet in taking a decision. "The decision that Europe has made is with no risk assessment, no consultation, no co-ordination, no leadership," IATA president Giovanni Bisignani said in Paris.

In fact, only a third of the airspace blocked so far is estimated to be risky for planes to fly, Mr Redeborn admitted. The reason for the exaggerated response was linked to the high number of people involved in the decision-making process. The teleconference of stakeholders on Monday comprised some 200 persons.

"When all these people get exposed to a situation where there is no previous experience, the safety culture induced environment means that everybody jumps in the direction of safety. Once you learn more about the nature of the ash, what jet engines can cope with, things change little by little."

For the first passenger-free test flight, for instance, it took Eurocontrol six hours to get the green light from national authorities, due to a reluctance to take responsibility. But once it proved to be safe, others were easier to get up in the air.

In the US - unlike in Europe - airlines are allowed to decide themselves if they want to fly and how to circumvent the ash cloud. National authorities only give them information about the location of the cloud.

"There were suggestions we move in that direction," Mr Redeborn said, but admitted it was still a distant prospect, as national authorities in Europe still have a say in all matters related to their airspace.

EU bends rules

Meanwhile, the European Commission has signalled willingness to bend competition rules for state aid given to troubled airlines facing an avalanche of costs with stranded and re-routed passengers. In the UK, British Airlines has already filed for state aid.

It also advised member states to show leniency to non-EU passengers who now need to travel by land or by sea but have no visas.

Nearly seven million passengers are stranded at 313 airports around the world due to the European flight ban.

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