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Is it safe?

Tom Feilden | 09:50 UK time, Monday, 19 April 2010

Road sign With the chaos caused by the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjalla volcano entering a fifth day, the question airlines are beginning to ask is when they are going to be allowed back into the skies.

And while millions of passengers remain stranded all around the world by the huge plume of volcanic ash that has spread out across the Atlantic, western Europe and Russia, the costs keep mounting.

British Airways has put its losses at £25 million a day, and according to the International Air Transport Association the overall industry figure could be as high as £130m.

No wonder the airlines are beginning to question the regulatory system that has grounded commercial flights across much of Europe.

The Association of European Airlines, whose 36 members include British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, has called for an "immediate reassessment" of the restrictions after test flights reported no damage from ash.

Over the weekend KLM, Lufthansa and Air France put up more than 30 flights to see if corridors could be found through the ash. A BA flight out of Heathrow, carrying the company's chief executive Willie Walsh, also reported no problems.

The decision not to fly is based on an assessment made by nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres around the world and overseen by the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation in Montreal (a system set up after the incident with a BA flight over Indonesia in 1982). In the UK the VAA Centre is based at the Met Office's London headquarters.

These Centres issue advice to national Governments, which retain sovereignty over their airspace, using a combination of data-gathering test flights and climate modelling of the volcanic ash plume to make an assessment of the risk. But, perhaps surprisingly, it turns out there's no official "parts-per-million" threshold above or below which it is or isn't safe to fly. It's a judgement call made by the VAAC.

Obviously no one wants to fly if there's any risk of an accident, but suspicion is mounting that this bureaucratic system is producing overly cautious advice.

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The problem is that - as with any cloud - the ash plume is not uniform. There are patches where the ash is much more dense, and other relatively clear areas. The test flights being operated by the Met Office are decked out with specialist equipment to measure these density fluctuations. Those being operated by the airlines are not.

So the fact that a conventional airliner can take off, fly around a bit, and then come back down unscathed, doesn't mean there aren't potential problems up there.

The Met Office are reporting pockets of ash that do pose a serious risk to planes - pockets those conventional planes would not be able to detect as they flew into them.


  • Comment number 1.

    > Obviously no one wants to fly if there's any risk of an accident

    Are you suggesting that people usually board metallic boxes to remain in mid-air for hours travelling at 900km/h through all kinds of weather systems, with the understanding that there is no risk of an accident?

  • Comment number 2.

    > doesn't mean there aren't potential problems up there.

    There are always problems in life; if we avoided every remotely possible problem, we wouldn't have invented airplanes at all. If several flights from several airline companies have shown that it's safe to fly, it's "good enough" for me!

    If you Britons want to be different from the rest of Europe, then just keep your own airspace closed for another week, but please let me go home!

  • Comment number 3.

    >So the fact that a conventional airliner can take off, fly around a bit, >and then come back down unscathed, doesn't mean there aren't potential >problems up there.
    At least they have flown and tested it in a real world. Your so-called assesments are nothing more than computer-generated projections.
    The cloud now starts to reach Canada and spreads over thousands and thousands of miles to the west, east and south. What does it suggest about the concentration of the dust?

  • Comment number 4.

    Hopefully the volcano saga will see supermarkets buy more locally-grown produce instead of shipping vegetables half-way around the planet.

  • Comment number 5.

    At what point does risk management go too far? I fully understand that patient safety is paramount but surely there is an opposite reaction to not flying. How many lives will be lost/changed for ever as a result of this chaos? I predict thousands. I wouldn't want to be the person making the call but if they want 100% safety I fear we might not be flying anytime soon. And that’s annoying as my girlfriend is stuck in Bali!

  • Comment number 6.

    Of course, considering the costs to the airlines of this grounding, in time, instruments based on those used on the Met Office test flights may well become standard equipment on commercial aircraft.

    This is a real oportunity for the development of sensors that will detect and measure the density of a potentially dangerous dust cloud from a safe distance.

    Until such sensors are widely deployed (on the ground or on airliners), meteorologists will have no choice other than to rely on computer models and very sparcely-distributed test flights in order to assess the likelihood of a potentially dangerous concentration existing in controlled airspace.

  • Comment number 7.

    i would like to know what is the difference between this dust and sand. Planes routinely fly through sand (looks like smog/fog on approach) into Gulf States and that seems 'safe'. Another point....these two hour flight tests by BA and KLM are a bit useless and prove nothing...empty aircraft with engines not spooled up. There should by a 1000 hours of test flying through the layers of dust, and engine examinations every 250 hours. This could be done by ten aircarft over the nexct week or so. if all is well then open the skies.??

    by the way there's dust on my car today...and its VERY sharp...leaving scratches on the paint work...needs very careful wiping to remove...and not in a car wash or you might wreck your lovely paint work!

  • Comment number 8.

    change patient to passenger! working in the nhs too long....

  • Comment number 9.

    Let's assume self centred airline chiefs and greedy business men get their way and manage to persuade the relevant authorities to allow flights. Who would then be to blame if a plane then crashes and the cause was engine failure due to volcanic ash?

  • Comment number 10.

    What Met Office does is it tells us there is a problem (ash clouds above us), and then NATS makes the decision based on Met's assessment that flying through the ash clouds is too risky.

    Why on earth do we have to fly through the ash clouds? There must be some other ways to fly safely without worrying about the ash clouds. But apparently Met and NATS are not bothered figuring out the solutions to the problem, besides advicing the air ban and preying for nature to cure the problem for human beings!

  • Comment number 11.

    No one's saying every plane which takes off will drop out of the sky, so one or two flights making short trips isn't exactly representative of the thousands of flights being made into and out of this country on an average day.

    The pressure from airlines is purly financial. This is why it's imperative that safety decisions are made by independent bodies, and not the trade itself.

  • Comment number 12.

    How many people will die in road accidents caused by the increase in car and truck traffic due to the flight ban?

  • Comment number 13.

    The biggest problem is that our Met office use computer predictions for the ash cloud rather than real data, and we all know how (in)accurate their computer predictions are don't we. So they then advise NATS based on a risk averse guess as to where the cloud might be who in turn close too much airspace.

    The pressure from the airlines is not purely financial, they have their customers, staff and planes stranded all over the world because of this nannying approach by the Met office, NATS and Eurocontrol.

    There are other volcanic ash clouds in the atmosphere, and consequently there is volcanic ash and other dust, debris etc in the jetstream constantly. The problem for gas turbine engines and aircraft only comes with high concentrations of ash or larger ash particles.

    The Met office should be providing accurate, up-to-date information - based on real data - on where and at what altitutde the dangerously dense parts of the ash cloud are to NATS so they can direct air traffic around those areas or flight levels.

  • Comment number 14.

    Look guys the point is we do not have sufficient data or tests to know if it is safe so we cannot fly. What if a A380 landed on your house? I live in UK and work in Spain and cannot get home any time soon but putting planes up when we have no means of knowing whether it is really safe cannot be the correct response.
    Last point I went to Plymouth college in 1970's and in geography we had three great teachers teachers, Lyn Crout, Roly Jones and kiddie compton and they used to study this volcano during their holidays in Iceland and my recollection was these eruptions last for month and months.

  • Comment number 15.

    It should be obvious that in a swirling cloud there will be different areas of varying concentrations of ash. So the few test flights have been fine but the Met plane encountered denser, more dangerous levels and the BBC are now reporting that Nato are reporting damage to military planes.

    No, when I fly I am not unaware that I am taking a risk. But flight is the safest form of transport precisely because unnecessary risks are eliminated. Flying into a potentially dangerous cloud that can't be mapped is an unnecessary risk. It's only five days that things have been closed down. Maybe they are improving but it was quite right to take the decision to close airspace and it should only be reversed once the risk is considered to be virtually gone. Who would be liable if normal service was resumed and a plane crashed? What of insurance companies? Are they willing to underwrite potential losses when the risk is unquantified?

  • Comment number 16.

    I wonder if we are in for another bout of 'scientist bashing'? Taking a personal risk or even risk analysis is fine but modelling and sampling are equally viable tools. As has been said "I wouldn't like to make the call"

  • Comment number 17.

    I am writing this as a trainee commercial pilot. May I emphasise the point that radar in aircraft CANNOT pick up this ash cloud.

    A cloud may look just like an ordinary cloud, however hidden inside it may be dense ash, there is no way of knowing.

    In 1982 when a BA flight lost all four engines, they were unaware that they had flown through any volcano ash or smoke. It was not until the engines had been taken apart that it was evident.

    While I understand airline finances are weak after a very hard hitting recession on the industry, safety must come first, and I am sure many will agree with me.

    All it will take, is for one accident caused by this ash, and people will be asking why the flight was undertaken, and that will destroy even more confidence in the airline industry.

    People can still get home, or to their destinations, it just takes a little longer than expected. Just imagine it as a big traffic jam on the M25, that people must get around.

    Because until the cloud dissipates, it is NOT safe to fly.

  • Comment number 18.

    @#16 - I fear you're right. Some of the logic in these comments beggars belief. "Models are not 100% accurate therefore we should just carry on regardless". Where have we heard that before? Just as some people will only believe in climate change when the sea laps at their doorstep, perhaps they will only believe that the ash poses an unacceptable risk of flying when a plane drops out of the sky.

  • Comment number 19.

    No one questioned the decision to close airspace when this first occurred. As soon as it starts to affect people personally, everyone starts thinking its fine to fly now.

    If just ONE aircraft goes down, it is one too many. We have become accustomed to a fantastic service the airline industry has provided over the years. Sometimes you have to just put up with the problems when they come about.

    If you are STUCK in the UK then go and look at one of our FREE museums, I could think of worse countries to be stuck in.

  • Comment number 20.

    Cav is quite right about taking unnecessary risks. We know there is a risk of catastrophic engine failure if a jet flies through a dense pocket of ash and we've had a huge ash cloud over Europe for days. I find it hard to understand the dismissal by some officials of the meteorological model as "only a model". Without having any way of systematically mapping the ash cloud through direct observations the logical thing to do is use the best models we can; and even then, an ash-free corridor identified via the model still represents some kind of risk. The model could be too optimistic as well as too pessimistic; people seem to forget that NATS has given permission to fly in the UK where they thought it was safe.

    Grant says "The Met office should be providing accurate, up-to-date information - based on real data - on where and at what altitude the dangerously dense parts of the ash cloud are to NATS so they can direct air traffic around those areas or flight levels." I imagine that if they were able to do that (and how could they do it without hundreds of flights or much more sophisticated satellite monitoring systems?) they would be doing it. And it's worth remembering that the current safety rules, based on advice from the engine manufacturers, say there is no safe level of ash. So without changing the rules on the fly (perhaps a bad idea as well as a bad pun), the idea of a safely rarified part of the cloud isn't very useful.

    Of course NATS is risk-averse. That's its job. It would be gambling with passengers' lives if it were't.

    I think it is strange how different aspects of the situation are lumped together. It isn't surprising that the closure of airspace is costing airlines millions, and Diego Lopez Garrido has described the situation as "unsustainable". But this has no bearing on whether it is safe to fly in the ash cloud. Using economic arguments to press for a release of the ban sounds like irresponsible gambling to me. Billy Walsh's test flight may be good PR but it seems to be designed to support a future argument for compensation rather than to contribute seriously to the data available to NATS for making sound decisions. Would BA resume flights if the ban were lifted right now? It seems unlikely!

  • Comment number 21.

    There have been billions and billions of flight hours logged since the times of the Wright brothers, and all we are aware of is a couple of planes getting into trouble with ashed when flying almost overhead of the volcano. Please somebody bring this discussion back into something realistic.

  • Comment number 22.

    17. Hk2 is right.

    If public safety was found to have been put at risk simply to keep the airline industry in the black, then in this safety obsessed culture the consequences would be unheard of.

    My only fear is the talk of compensation coming from governments. Yet again the tax payer is the one picking up the pieces. This must not be allowed to happen.

  • Comment number 23.


    Given that "flight is the safest form of transport", since millions need to reach their destinations one way or another, do you agree that a non-zero number of them will now suffer from accidents and incidents that would not have happened, had they been able to fly?

    Shouldn't bee too difficult to answer...

  • Comment number 24.

    #15 Nobody is saying that the initial reaction to close airspace was wrong, at that point the extent and composition of the ash cloud was unknown. Now we are 5 days on, and several airlines have flown test flights and reported no damage. What NATO haven't said is where their jets were, what they were doing or how fast they were travelling (a small stone hitting your windscreen at 30mph does no damage, but at 90 or 120 mph it would pit or break).

    There is almost certainly more information available now about the density and composition of the ash cloud, what the Met office and NATS should be doing is being much more specific about it's location, speed and direction of travel and relaying that information to aircraft/airlines that choose to fly.

    #18 Aircraft are not likely to drop on your house because there has been a small amount of abrasion to the windscreen or turbine compressor blades or even a bit of silicate melted in the combustion chamber of the engine. You would need either a very dense cloud of fine particulates (<1 mm)or a fairly dense cloud of larger particulates (1-2mm) for that to become an issue. Easy answer is fly around where the dense cloud is.

  • Comment number 25.

    I am of the opinion that our nannies are all bottling it a bit. To my knowledge two aircraft, both of which transited in close proximity to an active volcano have suffered problems in 25 years, neither crashed. Air travel is very safe, and while I do not expect open skies "at your own risk" but I dont expect the default nanny state position that any risk is a bad risk. Is there any confirmation that a couple of NATO jets have found glass in their engines?

    Its a bL$$%y good job some of us risked driving to the station and getting on a train and doing some work when it snowed, or risked having kids is it not?

    Is the met office is actually taking any precautions with its own aircraft, or is it just relying on the models? This is very interesting

    Only shows a couple of small areas at 20000ft+, nothing significant above 35000ft, the surface to 20000ft is quite extensive.

    Dirty car - actually one of the best ways to get rid of this stuff (as it is when we occasionally get sahara dust) is to use a carwash which uses liquid to float the ash off - make sure it is one that sprays the car then starts brushing for the fewest paint problems!

  • Comment number 26.

    Can I just point out one error:
    "using a combination of data-gathering test flights and climate modelling"
    The Met Office does not use Climate Modelling to predict the movement of the plume. A more accurate short term atmosperic model is used and they have a very good record of tracking and predicting where a plume will travel. Please let's not confuse weather forecasting (in this case mostly wind direction and strength) with climate forecasting, they use two very different models.
    Great article though.

  • Comment number 27.

    Willie Walsh is at it again!!!!! Is there no bounds to his bullying behaviour? Experts say it is not safe to send aircraft into the air, what does Willie do? Takes a flight up! 'Willie the Master Manipulator!'

    One flight does not a summer make, if there is any risk to the public, then it is best, in spite of the disruption, not to fly. Can you imagine the uproar if a flight crashed as a result of volcanic ash in its engine?????

    Willie now wants compensation, 'its unfair' he cries, 'its not our fault', now that sounds very similar to what the Unions were saying to Willie! and what the stranded passengers are saying trying to get compensation from BA.

    Willie, your arrogance is becoming a bore! Stop trying to manipulate situations, all the time!

  • Comment number 28.

    Ok it appears that several of your posters here don't want to take the opinion of those paid to research this stuff and provide their informed opinion on whether it's safe so I have a simple solution - Take anyone who wants to fly (against the advice of these groups) and stick them on planes but make them sign disclaimers saying that they fully absolve all parties in the event that the plane they are on flies through an undetectable cloud of volcanic glass and falls out of the sky and they die in a fireball.


  • Comment number 29.

    We have historical data that shows what happens to aircraft when they fly through clouds of volcanic ash and the airlines still want to ignore factual events and restore flights based on their own unscientific tests. What is most frightening here is how the naked greed of the airlines is quite blatantly putting profit before safety. We haven't had this kind of cavalier attitude that money is more important than human life since back in the days of slavery. This should be a lesson to everyone on how major corporations have become greedy, selfish and irresponsible entities that seem to think they are above the law and not answerable to either governments or their customers.

  • Comment number 30.

    People are noticing layers of fine volcanic ash on their cars all over Europe. All the way down to Central Europe, dust concentrations in the air have reached critical levels at night(!!) - with virtually no traffic to cause it. This isn't just models: if this is what we have down here, who would be mad enough to let thousands of flights with millions of helpless people on board find out what it might be like up there?

  • Comment number 31.

    #20 I'm not saying that NATS shouldn't be risk averse, but they are not getting an accurate and up-to-date picture from the Met office so they then appear to be too risk averse. The other VAACs around the world manage to provide accurate real data using an array of tools available to them and not just a vague fuzzy mess that is spewed out of a computer model.

    Regular (water) clouds tend to form in layers, and it's quite possible to fly from a to b without going in clouds. It's called VFR or visual flight regulations. For airliner flights it's simple enough to determine some safe transit points where planes can pass through the cloud layers without encountering high densities of volcanic ash. There just seems to be a total failure of common sense in this whole fiasco. Planes have windows in the cockpit for a reason, let the pilots use them.

    There is no risk of a catastrophic engine failure from flying through an ash cloud of this type or density, there is the risk of the compressor blades stalling and/or suffering some abrasion but as soon as the engine is in clear air the engine will re-start. To cause a really major problem with the engine you would need to fly through the most dense parts of the cloud near the volcano, not a bit of a cloud a 1000 miles away. If you can see it and it appears as a dense cloud then it's too dense, if it's just a bit of a haze then the engine won't even stall.

  • Comment number 32.


    Couldn't agree with you more, and it's not just the airline industry either.

  • Comment number 33.

    I also had to cancel my annual holiday due to flight cancellations. There is a distinct possibility that I may never see an elderly parent again, but then sometimes we have to sit back, relax, take a deep breath and review our lifestyle. We have bacome so dependent on technology to shape our circumstances according to our every demand that we forget that the human being is not in control of nature. Maybe some good can come from this crisis, and we can slow down a little and appreciate the good things around us a bit more. The silent sunny skies this weekend were absolutely wonderful!

    I agree with Mark Cheam. Put all the those that want to fly in a plane, as long as they don't expect flight staff on board to attend to their every whim!

  • Comment number 34.

    All those so fully sure that things have been done for the best of all of us, please check the news about the EU transport ministers changing the rules on-the-fly (pun intended), to something decidedly more sensible than sheer panic:

    "The sky is to be divided into three areas with the no-fly zone restricted to the areas immediately over the volcanic plume, The Times understands. A second zone will cover an area where ash may be present but flights will be allowed under strict conditions. The third area will be open skies where flights can take place as usual. "

    By the hour now we are learning more and more how the original decision was wrong, wrong and then again wrong. Hopefully this policy disaster will never happen again.

  • Comment number 35.

    Guys and Gals, thanks to the NATS and Euro control folk, you and we are currently alive. How about some kudos and gratitude thrown in their direction and how about everyone who is 'stuck' take this as a challenge, and not a life threatening one at that. Get to know the folk and places around you. Stay calm and stop blame throwing and freaking out. Help those around you who are more vulnerdable , the young and the old.
    Stay mentaly and physically healthy, this will help you be more patient and respectful to those around you and will make you feel better about yourself. Smile, now, often.
    I know it isn't easy especially when one is stressed with financial pressures and hungry to boot but being agrivated with those around just makes things a million times worse. And one day hopefully soon this will all be over, a moment in our history.

    Stuck in an airport or hotel or anywhere in Europe is a dream for millions of people in under developed and developing countries. People who watch their kids die from simple diseases and hunger, people who live on under a dollar a day and eat only once a day if they are lucky.
    It's worth thinking of sometimes, worth coming down to earth with a little discomfort rather than in plane with failed engines. Tulia we say in kiswahili, sit tight, it'll all work out ok in the end.

  • Comment number 36.

    Maurizio, that's the sort of action we'd like to see...

  • Comment number 37.

    A friend who works for BA reckons that the plane that Willie Walsh went on the test flight in, had to have all its engines replaced! And he says no problem safe to fly?? Is this true?? If so Is it just the case he was desperate to get flying again.


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