Airport Disruptions from Ash Cloud 'Worse Than 9/11,' Says European Airline Group
As individual governments in worst-affected countries grappled with the challenges of bringing home citizens stranded abroad – the British government said it would deploy the Royal Navy to retrieve stranded air passengers -- the European Union tried to formulate an E.U-wide response to the crisis.
Meanwhile, several airlines took the initiative of carrying out their own short test flights without passengers, attempting a range of altitudes in and around the affected airspace in their regions at the weekend. No mishaps were reported, and airlines – among them KLM, Lufthansa and British Airways – reported no signs of damage or harm to aircraft systems.
Airspace in more than 20 countries has been partly or completely closed, and the ripple effect on long-haul routes has been substantial. (U.S. carriers are issuing travel waivers for all flights to, from or through major European hubs until April 22.)
With every passing hour, more canceled flights add to the travel industry’s woes. Eurocontrol, the European air traffic control agency, reported that only 5,000 flights took place in Europe on Sunday, about 20,000 fewer than the scheduled number. Parts of southern and southeastern Europe were the areas least affected. Since the disruptions began on Thursday following the eruption of a volcano near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland, more than 63,000 scheduled flights had been canceled as of the end of the day on Sunday.
On Sunday night the British Met Office reported that the volcano was still erupting and that weather patterns were continuing to blow ash towards the U.K.
The International Air Transport Association estimates conservatively that airlines have been losing around $200 million a day in lost revenue alone, and incurring further significant costs to deal with grounded aircraft and hundreds of thousands of stranded passengers.
In a joint statement, an association representing 36 European airlines and another representing more than 400 European airports questioned the proportionality of the flight restrictions put in place by national and European authorities.
Airports Council International (ACI) Europe and the Association of European Airlines (AEA) called the impact on the aviation industry “devastating” and said the consequences were spreading to the wider economy, given the reliance of businesses on aviation.
ACI Europe director-general Olivier Jankovec said in a statement that more than 300 airports were “paralyzed,” and that "the impact is already worse than 9/11." The two organizations stressed that they consider safety “an absolute priority,” but said that past volcano eruptions elsewhere had not brought the same level of curbs.
“The eruption of the Icelandic volcano is not an unprecedented event and the procedures applied in other parts of the world for volcanic eruptions do not appear to require the kind of restrictions that are presently being imposed in Europe,” ACI Europe and AEA said.
Individual E.U. member states are usually responsible for their own air safety assessments.
AEA chief Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus appealed for a better coordinated response, saying that European governments appeared to have different interpretations of how to implement international air transportation procedures. He voiced concern that individual authorities may be applying different criteria in deciding when to close and reopen their airspace.
Seeking to adopt a “European approach,” E.U. transport ministers were to hold a videoconference meeting Monday, armed with reports from airlines that have carried out assessment flights and the latest data from Eurocontrol on the ash cloud movements.
After meetings in Brussels on Sunday, E.U. officials voiced tentative optimism that the evolution of the ash cloud would allow about half of scheduled flights to operate on Monday.
The officials responded to questions about a possibly excessive response by declaring that safety remained the top priority and could not be compromised.
As travel industry losses continue to climb and ripple outwards, the E.U.’s executive Commission is expected to face requests for urgent financial assistance, at a time when governments at a national and E.U. level are already struggling with the effects of the economic crisis. European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said Sunday he was setting up an ad-hoc group of senior officials aimed at ensuring that any measures taken in response to the economic consequences of the situation were properly coordinated.
“Following one of the worst years for financial performance the aviation industry has ever seen, a prolonged period of losses for an industry that is already in a difficult financial position could have serious repercussions,” said Neil Morris, senior manager in the aviation team at the accounting firm Deloitte.
The fine ash spewing from volcanic eruptions can damage aircraft engines and other equipment in a variety of ways, with potentially disastrous results.
In 1982, the eruption of Mount Galunggung near Jakarta almost led to tragedy when two 747s en route to Australia lost the use of their engines temporarily after flying through the ash plume. In one case, a British Airlines jumbo jet with 240 people aboard dropped 24,000 feet before the pilots were able to restart three of the four engines and land safely, according to news reports at the time. Investigations found that the ash cloud had clogged the engines and sandblasted the windscreen.
A similar incident occurred in Alaska in 1989, involving a KLM 747 which was also eventually able to land safely.