Monday, April 19, 2010

Guest Post: Air Travel and Volcanic Ashes

The following guest post, entitled "Air Travel and Volcanic Ashes: Update on the European Situation," comes from Charles Schlumberger, Principal Air Transport Specialist at the World Bank.

For the fifth day in a row most of European air space as been closed to instrument flights in controlled air space, which brought air travel to a virtual standstill - an unprecedented situation since World War II. Thousands of travellers, including many Bank staff, are stranded in many parts of Europe and even the world, as many key hubs cannot transit passengers. Every single day expectations were high that "tomorrow things will gradually return to normal", but so far only limited air travel has resumed.

Here are some aspects on the complexity of the matter, and an update on the European situation.

The cause of the problem:

  • A volcano in Island, under a glacier known as Eyjafjallajokull, began erupting several weeks ago for the first time since the 1820s. It exploded more violently early Wednesday, spewing ash 30,000 feet into the air. The major difference with the eruption of other volcanos for aviation with this event is the fact that the volcano was covered with a massif cap of ice, which melted in an explosive manner. This resulted that the lava and its ashes were transformed into an aerosol type, which stays airborne for days, and which is transported over long distances.

The aviation world has very limited experience with volcanic ashes. Even though there have been over 80 ash related incidents in aviation over the past decades, only two major incidents involving commercial airliners and volcanic ashes were examined in detail:

  • British Airways Flight 9, sometimes referred to as the Speedbird 9 or Jakarta incident, was a scheduled British Airways flight from London Heathrow to Auckland, with stops in Bombay, Madras, Kuala Lumpur, Perth, and Melbourne. On 24 June 1982, the route was flown by the City of Edinburgh, a 747-236B. The aircraft flew into a cloud of volcanic ash thrown up by the eruption of Mount Galunggung (circa 180 kilometres (110 mi) south-east of Jakarta, Indonesia), resulting in the failure of all four engines. The reason for the failure was not immediately apparent to the crew or ground control. The aircraft was diverted to Jakarta in the hope that enough engines could be restarted to allow it to land there. The aircraft was able to glide far enough to exit the ash cloud, and all engines were restarted (although one failed again soon after), allowing the aircraft to land safely.
  • A nearly identical incident occurred on 15 December 1989 when KLM Flight 867, a B747-400 from Amsterdam to Anchorage, Alaska, flew into the plume of the erupting Mount Redoubt, causing all four engines to fail due to compressor stall. Once the flight cleared the ash cloud, the crew was able to restart each engine and then make a safe landing at Anchorage.

The risk for aircraft operations in the presence of volcanic ashes:

  • Ash clouds from volcanoes pose a threat to aircraft safety because the plumes are filled with abrasive silica-based materials that risk clogging up the engines and sandblasting windscreens. Traversing a high-altitude volcanic ash clouds with a plane may also spark an electrical discharge known as St. Elmo’s fire, block speed sensors or disrupt the airstream as pulverized rock strips away paint.
  • According to Toulouse-based Airbus SAS, volcanic particles have a melting point that is below an engine’s internal temperature, causing them to melt when they pass through an engine in midflight. This may clog turbine vanes and disturb the flow of high-pressure combustion gases, risking an engine stall, according to an Airbus flight operations briefing note.
  • Many other aircraft systems may be affected immediately, or over time which are causing expensive repairs and may pose an immediate or delayed operational risk. These include for example clogged airspeed indicators, angle of attack sensors, pressurization systems, static ports, or various other external sensors of an aircraft.

The regulatory challenge for aviation authorities:

  • Civil Aviation Authorities (CAA) around the world are responsible for regulatory oversight of aviation. In terms of safety, they need to intervene when a dangerous situation threatens safe operations in air transport. Given the experiences in 1982 and 1989, the presence of volcanic ashes in the atmosphere represents such a risk. However, it primarily seems to affect flights in higher altitudes performed with modern turbine driven aircraft. The sanction is to order that air traffic services cannot accept any controlled flight in their air space, which virtually cancels all air travel on jet driven commercial aircraft. It does, however, not necessarily cancel or prohibit flights in uncontrolled airspace and in lower altitudes (usually, all flights above flight-level 180 (18,000 ft) are in controlled airspace) -> e.g. several test flights were conducted by various carriers in uncontrolled airspace, and many small private aircraft enjoyed training e.g. at Zürich International Airport this weekend, not being disturbed by airlines and when even the landing taxes have been cancelled (see picture below)!
  • Aircraft need to be operated by manufactures specification, which requires e.g. clean air for engine operations. Despite growing pressure from air travel groups such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the CAA said that all current jet engine manufacturers specify zero levels of atmospheric ash for safe flying. The CAA said that unless jet engine manufacturers changed their operating specifications, something it added was highly unlikely in the short-to-medium term, the restrictions will continue to apply. Addressing calls from some quarters of the European travel industry to lift or ease flight restrictions, a CAA spokesman said: "We need evidence to prove that it is safe to fly... we have evidence that ash adversely affects aircraft and at the moment the manufacturers' guidelines are zero rating with respect to ash." The spokesman said that it would be very unlikely that NATS, the British air traffic control provider, would lift restrictions in the current circumstances.

The economic impact of the flight cancellations:

  • The disruption is costing airlines at least $200 million a day in lost revenues, said Giovanni Bisignani, director general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association. an industry trade group. Airports have lost close to 136 million euros ($184 million U.S.) so far, said Olivier Jankovec, director general of Airports Council International Europe, a group that represents airports. More than 6.8 million passengers have been affected, he said. Many other services, such as catering or handling are affected, and will lose million of euros from this even
  • Next to direct losses on airlines and airports there are indirect and implied losses. Indirect losses are losses from related economic activities, such as tourism, and implied losses are created be secondary effects of the indirect losses (e.g. services to the tourism industry). No assessment can currently be done on these sort of losses, but should the crisis continue, their effects will certainly become an issue.
  • Finally, there are already some supply disruptions in manufacturing and services around Europe as cargo flights are also not possible. All together, the closing of European airspace starts to provide dramatic evidence on how important air transportation has become for modern society and its economic activities.

The current situation in Europe today:

  • Most of Northern Europe's airspace remains closed for instrument flights (controlled and guided flights). As a result, only about 8,000 to 9,000 flights are expected to take off today Monday in European airspace, according to traffic authority Eurocontrol. About 28,000 flights take place on most Mondays.

        on a country basis, this is the situation:

  • Austria: Austrian airspace, including all Austrian airports, reopened at 05:00 local time (LT) Monday. The Austrian aviation agency Austro Control will continue to monitor the situation and has not ruled out another closure in the coming hours.
  • Canada: Flights into and out of St. John's, Gander and Deer Lake, Newfoundland, may be affected by volcanic activity, AirCanada said.
  • Denmark:  There will be no flights in Danish airspace before 14:00 LT Monday.
  • Finland: There will be no flights in or out of Finnish airports before 18:00 LT on Monday.
  • France: Paris' Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will remain closed until 08:00 LT Tuesday by order of the French Civil Aviation Authority, Air France said on its Web site late Saturday. France reopened airports in Toulouse, Montpellier, Pau, Tarbes, Biarritz, Bordeaux, Nice, and Marseilles until 15:00  Monday, when the situation will be reassessed. Air France is busing passengers from de Gaulle to airports in the south of the country. It plans to have seven flights leave France on Monday: six from Toulouse airport, and one from Pau. It also hopes to have nine nine flights fly into France on Monday, into airports in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nice and Marseilles. The French national rail company SNCF is adding 80,000 extra places on the Eurostar high-speed trains running from Paris to London this week. Tickets will cost a special fare of 96 euros (about $130) round trip, less than half the normal last-minute price.
  • Germany: The flight ban over Germany has been extended to 20:00 local time Monday and applies to all airports in the country, the German aviation safety authority said.
  • Ireland: Ireland extended its airspace closure through 13:00 LT Monday and said restrictions past then were "likely" in light of current weather forecasts.
  • Italy: The airspace in northern Italy is closed until 20:00 local time Tuesday, the country's civil aviation authority said. Airspace throughout the rest of the country opened at 07:00 Monday, but the situation remains fluid with officials checking how long it can remain open, the civil aviation authority said.
  • Norway: The airspace over Oslo airport (Gardermoen), and Kjevik, Torp and Rygge airports opened Monday.
  • Poland: About half the airspace in Poland is open, but that over Krakow remains closed, an airport official in the historic city said Monday.
  • Russia: Flights have been delayed and canceled at 10 Russian international airports, mostly in the European part of the country, the transport ministry said. Moscow's international Sheremetyevo airport has been affected by far more than others: 277 cancelled flights and 59 delayed, with more than 28,000 people stranded. Throughout Russia, 411 flights were canceled and 77 delayed, affecting more than 34,000 passengers, the Russian transport ministry said.
  • Spain: All 16 airports in Spain were scheduled to reopen at 15:30 LT Sunday -- several hours earlier than previously expected, the government announced.
  • Sweden: The airspace north and west of the flight corridor from Stockholm to Gothenburg opened Monday morning. The airspace around Bromma Airport has also opened.
  • Switzerland: Switzerland is not permitting flights before 14:00 LT Monday, the Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) said.
  • Thailand: Thai Airways, based in Bangkok, estimates the cloud is costing the airline $3 million a day and has stranded 6,000 of its passengers.
  • The Netherlands: A spokeswoman for KLM, one of the airlines that conducted test flights, told CNN the flights show European airspace is safe, with the exception of Iceland.
  • United Arab Emirates: Emirates airline says the disruption has already cost it $50 million.
  • United Kingdom: The British Royal Navy is deploying two ships, HMS Ocean and HMS Ark Royal, to rescue travelers stranded by the ash, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced. It's not clear where the ships are now or how long it would take them to get to their destinations, the Ministry of Defense said. Restrictions across British airspace will remain in effect until at least 01:00 LT Tuesday. British Airways canceled all flights in and out of London on Sunday and Monday, the airline announced.
  • Other countries There are restrictions on civil flights across most of northern and central Europe. This swath includes Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia and Ukraine.

The outlook as of Monday morning:

  • The good news is that most of the ice cap (the glacier known as Eyjafjallajokull) has melted, which indicates that less ashes my transported as aerosol over long-distances. However, the effect is not immediate, and the current winds still carry more ashes over Europe. Nevertheless, airlines are pressuring authorities to allow flights under close operational supervision (e.g. visual engine inspection after each flight), and some carriers have begun limited service. I expect that with decreasing level of ashes in the atmosphere, air travel will continue to gradually resume over the coming days. It will, however, require about ten days of full operations of all networks until air travel comes back to normality.
  • The bad news is that researchers are also worried about the Katla volcano which is situated almost 16 kms away from Eyjafjallajokull. It has been observed that both the volcanoes erupted together in 1612 and again from 1821 to 1823. According to the data that has been gathered over the years, it is believed that Katla can release far more material during an eruption than Eyjafjallajokull. If Katla errupts, the possibility of a far greater creation of volcanic ashes is quite likely, which may disrupt air travel for weeks, maybe even months. Such an event will have catastrophic effects, as it may even change the climate for a short or medium term (e.g. cool summers, change in rain patters).

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I am tired of hearing about airlines' problems and how some companies are experiencing profit losses. I just want them to fly on time and stop causing chaos in the skies. I regularly travel on business with BA and I must say, usually the service is great. But other airlines such as Ryanair are frequently late and I have had a number of vacations ruined thanks to their mishandling of my luggage. Many of the lastminute sites listed on offer better deals than the airlines' direct websites. I just wish that the airline operators can limit their delays so passengers like me do not face any more travel misery.

Posted by: vacations | May 6, 2010 10:09:23 PM

This made serious problem in my business trips. I was not able to move from my office to go another way. I have to travel for 50 hours where i just need 8 hours to cover it. Thanks GOD it just finished it's activity.

Posted by: Bahamas Travel | Jul 9, 2010 5:31:29 AM

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