Eyjafjallajökull – A Lesson Learned

As a cloud of ash bellowed forth from Eyjafjallajökull and spread across Europe, airports from Ireland in the west to Russia and Ukraine in the east were effectively shut down, with the result that over 100,000 flights were cancelled and more than 10 million passengers left stranded. (Keilir Aviation Academy)

Richard Maslen was a guest at an international conference organised by the Keilir Aviation Academy in Keflavik, Iceland in September, where the impact of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption on the commercial aviation industry was discussed.

As a cloud of ash bellowed forth from Eyjafjallajökull and spread across Europe, airports from Ireland in the west to Russia and Ukraine in the east were effectively shut down, with the result that over 100,000 flights were cancelled and more than 10 million passengers left stranded. (Keilir Aviation Academy)

When Mount Merapi began erupting in late October, airlines across the Asia Pacific region initiated their emergency plans.  The volcano in central Java is one of the most active in the world and increasing seismic activity saw it explode for over a month spewing ash and debris more than 3.1m (5km) into the skies above Indonesia and resulting in the deaths of more than 350.  The images brought back memories of Eyjafjallajökull earlier in the year, an eruption that fortunately did not have the same magnitude in terms of loss of lives, but will be remembered for a lot longer for bringing European air travel to a standstill.  In the five-month period between these eruptions there has been a lot of discussion about how the industry should react to the problem of ash and to develop standard operating procedures that can be adhered to in the future.
There had been storm clouds hanging over the commercial air transport industry for a couple of years when it was hit by a crisis of volcanic proportions with the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in south-eastern Iceland on April 14, 2010.  As a cloud of ash bellowed forth from the volcano and spread across Europe, airports from Ireland in the west to Russia and Ukraine in the east were effectively shut down, with the result that over 100,000 flights were cancelled and more than 10 million passengers left stranded.  The disruption spread far beyond the continent’s boundaries though, as airlines across the world suspended flights into the restricted parts of Europe.
The airspace closures began on the morning of April 15… first Scotland then Ireland… but by the middle of the day the whole of the UK was under the giant cloud, which spread for thousands of miles at a height of between 22,000ft and 34,000ft.  As strong winds pushed this further to the south and east, the disruption spread across much of Europe.
The policy of European aviation authorities was simply that safety is first priority.  But the pressure was on to get Europe moving as quickly as possible with legacy airlines pushing individual governments to lift the operating restrictions.  A number of airlines, including Air Berlin, British Airways (BA), KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Lufthansa completed test flights to examine the effects of operating through the ash cloud, while Airbus completed its own analysis using a prototype A340-600 and A380-800.  These found that the levels of ash were much lower than predicted and in many cases the presence of ash could not even be identified.

The European Union's Director of Air Transport, Daniel Calleja-Crespo was one of the keynote speakers at the Eyjafjallajökull and Aviation conference in September. (Keilir Aviation Academy)

On April 20 the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and other European agencies offered new guidance effectively reopening European airspace and allowing aircraft to fly in volcanic plumes of up to 2,000 micrograms of ash per cubic metre, more than ten times the previous average level across the Continent.  “We had to ensure, in a situation without precedent, that decisions made were based on a thorough gathering of data and analysis by experts,” said Dame Deirdre Hutton, Chair of the CAA.  “The major barrier to resuming flight had been understanding tolerance levels of aircraft to ash.  Manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas.”
In the following days airspace was reopened across the continent with just minor restrictions in place in northern Scotland and Finland due to the high density of the ash clouds in those areas.
By April 22, Europe was once again fully open.
Five months after the event, the Eyjafjallajökull and Aviation conference at the Keilir Aviation Academy on the former United States Air Force base near Keflavik Airport in Iceland on September 15-16, brought a range of meteorological and aviation experts together to discuss the eruption.  The most startling observation from the conference was that the required knowledge and expertise to deal with the crisis was available at the time but was spread around individuals and organisations across the globe.  Volcanologists and specialised meteorologists had the experience and know-how but not the connections with airframe and engine manufacturers, regulators or decision-makers.  The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was not an unprecedented event –volcanoes have, after all been active for millions of years – but it was unforeseen, and the industry was quite clearly ill-prepared.  Nobody had actually predicted what would happen if a volcano erupted over Europe where there is such a high density of commercial traffic.
Speaking at the conference, the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Director for Safety and Operations Gunther Matschnigg described Europe’s reaction to Eyjafjallajökull as “risk aversion, not risk management”. He advised learning from the standard operating procedures adopted successfully by airlines that have flown for years through airspace where atmospheric ash is a fairly regular hazard.  In fact, the consensus of opinion among the multidisciplinary group of experts at the conference was that any decision to fly should be in the hands of airlines but in a strictly regulated environment where the risk assessment and management procedures of airlines would be scrutinised and approved by the appropriate aviation authority.  “There is a strong movement towards shifting to the operator the responsibility for deciding whether to fly and how to conduct any flight in the case of contamination from volcanic ash,” said the conference’s Chairman Dr Thorgeir Pálsson, Professor of Air Navigation Technology at Reykjavik University and former Director General of the Icelandic Civil Aviation Administration and air navigation service provider ISAVIA.
The true cost of the grounding is not known.  Stephen Perkins, head of the joint transport research centre for the International Transport Federation at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), claims loses amount to $1.1 trillion.  But the closure of airspace did prove the important and essential role that air transportation plays in daily life.  This is a view that has been championed by a number of industry organisations, including the European Regions Airline Association (ERA), which represents a lot of the smaller airlines and airports in the continent.  Speaking at its General Assembly in Barcelona, Spain in September 2010, Antonis Simigdalas, ERA President and Mike Ambrose ERA Director General, said:  “The events in April showed that air transport is an essential element of our society and it is now time for governments to recognise the value that air transport brings to the economy and the European communities it serves.
So, was the decision to stop flying completely necessary and will the industry react differently should it face a similar problem?  Put simply, we cannot be sure.  The problem is, as William Aspinall, a geophysicist at the University of Bristol summed up at the conference, “no two volcanoes are the same and no two eruptions are the same.”
But the biggest danger may be Mother Nature herself.  The Industry may be better aware of the impact of volcanic ash on commercial airliners but there is a major risk of another Icelandic eruption and therefore there remains a constant threat of disruption.  Although there is no guarantee that a future eruption would once more ground aircraft over one of the busiest areas of commercial air traffic, European governments, national aviation authorities and air navigation service providers have at least agreed to work together and a framework is now in place under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) International Volcanic Ash Task Force that would mean any grounding would be short-term and would be unlikely to have the same impact as Eyjafjallajökull did in April 2010.  As Iceland’s President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson noted in his closing speech at the Eyjafjallajökull and Aviation conference, the international view in the past has seemed to be “we don’t have volcanoes in our country, so this is really not our concern.”  Hopefully, one of the lessons that Eyjafjallajökull has brought to the world is that nobody will ever ignore the impact of Mother Nature.
The Moving Hub
During the closure of Keflavik International Airport in April 2010, Icelandair moved its hub to Glasgow Airport in Scotland, where seven of its Boeing 757s were photographed parked. (Icelandair)

Icelandair came up with an innovative way of continuing their operations during the closure of part of Europe’s airspace in April… by moving their hub to a completely different country.  Ironically Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport, which had been the only Northern European country open to transatlantic travel at the height of the crisis, had to close on April 22 when a change in wind direction directed the ash over most of its homeland.  Fortunately a high proportion of the traffic of the national carrier connects at Keflavik between Europe and the US, so the airline was able to establish a secondary hub at Glasgow in Scotland.
“We had identified the problem of a volcanic eruption in our SWOT analysis and had built an in-house model for such an occurrence,” Icelandair’s Chief Executive Officer Birkir Holm Gudnason told our sister magazine Airliner World.  “We brought together our crisis committee of around 20 senior staff and were able to make a decision and action a plan to move our hub in just six hours.  We in Iceland never want to miss a good crisis.”