04.18.10

Flying Into the Threat

Airlines are now sending planes into the volcanic ash cloud, but aviation expert Clive Irving explains why test flights may not be accurate—and why the eruption could ruin travel for years.

A dispute is breaking out over the continued imposition of a European-wide no-fly zone as a result of the cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland. European airlines have made test flights into the cloud without finding a problem. Now the question is: Has the Big Grounding across the continent been an overreaction?

Not just airplanes but airline CEOs are taking to the skies, rather like a doctor swigging a medicine to persuade a patient it’s safe. Peter Hartman, the head of the Dutch airline KLM, returned from a test flight without passengers at the normal cruise altitude and declared there was “nothing unusual.” Lufthansa, the German airline, flew eight empty airplanes from Munich to Frankfurt on a repositioning exercise without trouble. Later, Willie Walsh, the CEO of British Airways, took off on a London to Cardiff trip, normally a 45-minute flight, and spent three apparently uneventful hours in the air testing the conditions.

If the eruption lasts for years, will we be in a new giant game of weather roulette?

Not only was there no damage to the jet engines during these excursions but the pilots did not experience the kind of sandblasting of their windshields that has in the past been a scary feature of hitting volcanic clouds.

As a result, we are about to get an educational tour of the European Union’s labyrinth of agencies. The ACI, the body representing European airports, and the ACA, which represents 36 major airlines, announced: “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.”

On the other hand, the head of Eurocontrol, which oversees the air traffic control systems of 38 European countries, dismissed charges that they had been overcautious in imposing the no-fly zone. “With the overriding objective of protecting the traveling public, these exceptional measures have to be taken.”

So far, the EASA, the European Safety Agency, has not spoken.

But with airlines losing at least $200 million a day, and an economic tsunami ravaging the whole continent, getting an answer to what is really going on with this cloud is urgent.

It may be, for example, that the threat of the ash cloud varies in at least three ways—changing in density according to the altitude where it is encountered, varying its dynamics according to where it is geographically, and chemical differences in the composition of the ash. The deadliest element is the fine grain silicate, as fine as talcum powder, which turns into a paralyzing stream of hot glass inside a jet engine.

As the dispute about whether to fly again gathers momentum—there are reports that restrictions in United Kingdom airspace may be lifted early Monday—the issue may well become who has the final authority to send passengers back into the sky?

Beyond the alphabet soup of agencies specifically charged with the various interests of Europe’s aviation industry, political action would be needed. It’s not at all clear where state sovereignty ends and European Union powers prevail. Individual countries still have a say in critical areas—EASA, for example, has no power over the certification of airplanes or the licensing of pilots.

Moreover, if Europe’s political leaders took scientific advice (which they would be obliged to do) and gave the green light, what would be the response in the U.S.? Would the FAA demand to be involved? Many thousands of American passengers have an interest in this, those trying to get home from Europe and those waiting to fly to Europe.

Right now, only two things can relieve the accumulating misery of international air travel: The discovery that it is, after all, safe to fly through the cloud—or a return of the south-westerly winds out of the Atlantic that will move and disperse the great blob. The latest weather forecasts indicate that those winds are still days away.

Clive Irving is senior consulting editor at Conde Nast Traveler, specializing in aviation—find his blog, Clive Alive, at CliveAlive.Truth.Travel.