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25th Aug 2019

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EU tables new safety guidelines on volcanic ash

More flexible rules and a new crisis cell are Brussels' latest moves to counter mounting criticism from airlines and some member states following last month's airspace shut-down in reaction to the volcanic ash from Iceland.

Under the fresh guidelines, member states will be able to minimise flying restrictions when confronted with volcanic ash, so as to avoid another generalised air ban in Europe. The week-long ban in mid-April left millions of passengers stranded and cost the industry billions of euros.

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  • Volcanic ash may have proved less damaging to airplanes than feared (Photo: Orvaratli)

The recommendations were tabled jointly by the EU commission, Eurocontrol, an air traffic control body pooling data from 38 European countries and the so-far absent European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

They carve out four air safety zones, based on the levels of ash concentration, and further limit the no-fly zones - areas deemed to dangerous for plane engines and passengers. More feed-back from airlines after flying through low-contaminated areas should improve decision-making as well.

The EU commission also proposes setting up a crisis cell to allow for better co-ordination in extraordinary aviation events, such as volcanic eruptions.

"This is a great step forward in reducing the impact of a natural disaster that has affected airlines and their passengers. This crisis has highlighted the need for coordinated action at European level, and it is this kind of proactive developments that will allow us to find a sustainable solution for dealing with this crisis," EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas said in a statement.

The commission's move came on the same day as Germany's transport minister Peter Ramsauer lashed out at what he perceived as Brussels' wrong "sequence of priorities" when dealing with the consequences of the ash crisis.

"When we first had the big ash-cloud week-end, the first priority of the commission was to enable compensations for the airlines. Pardon? I said to Mr Kallas," the outspoken Bavarian politician told a group of journalists while in Berlin on Friday (21 May).

"Then the second priority was passenger rights," he went on. "Then there was a long pause, then came something on the Single European Sky, and only after that they started thinking on how we are going to deal in a uniform manner with these ash clouds, when they reappear."

Mr Ramsauer also had little patience for the "national navel-gazing" which became evident during the ash crisis, as each country did what it wanted and "the European mechanisms failed."

"We need EU regulations such as the Single European Sky [aimed at harmonising air traffic rules] and we should push for uniform international rules on how to proceed when we have ash clouds. It should no longer be the case that we have a cloud over the Atlantic and American air planes are flying through it, while European ones have to take a detour of thousands of kilometers," he said.

The American system allows airlines to decide for themselves if they want to circumvent or fly through the potentially engine-damaging ash. But in Europe, national regulators are those who have the last call on which areas are safe to fly.

European airlines have grown increasingly frustrated with the flying bans and airport closures put in place temporarily in the past weeks in Spain, the UK and Ireland, as the volcano continued its activity.

British Airways, Lufthansa and Air France-KLM said they found no signs of ash on their planes which flew in the areas around the cloud, while low-cost airline Ryanair confirmed that two of their planes encountered "small amount of particles" which produced no damage to the engines.

Four flights by Spanish carrier Vueling Airlines on 11 and 12 May also tested positive after flying in the proximity of the Icelandic ash cloud. During one of those flights, on an empty plane being taken back to Spain, some air intakes encountered problems, oxygen masks dropped and the plane descended, the company's spokesman said.

Several military flights and environmental test aircraft have also recorded potentially harmful amounts of ash, said a spokesman for Britain's weather service.

In defining the no-fly zones, member states so far relied solely on computer models generated by the London-based Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre. Some airports in Ireland and Britain temporarily grounded all planes last week, based on warnings from the VAAC.

Last Monday, for instance, while the VAAC computers showed a dark ash cloud gliding over Dublin Airport, a specially equipped Lufthansa jet took to the skies off the eastern Irish coast and, using specialised equipment, it detected no ash whatsoever, The Sunday Independent reported.

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