What a difference a few weeks make in aviation safety… we have gone from closing down large swathes of European air space because any volcanic ash is too much volcanic ash to “a little ash never hurt anyone.” What happened? As usual, New Scientist magazine has a very insightful article explaining the shift in thinking.
Apparently, a little mishap in 1982 in which a BA 747 lost all 4 engines due to ash contamination prompted international regulators to decide that if any volcanic ash was observed or predicted to cross airspace, that airspace needed to be closed. (By the way, the BA pilots managed to restart the engines, but, I am sure that a lot of undies had to be changed by that time). However, no testing was ever done to determine if there is a safe ash concentration level, below which planes can fly without losing their engines.
Fast forward to the past few weeks. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was the first one which affected such a large and busy area of active air space, and grounding 6.8 million passengers and causing untold hundreds of millions of dollars in losses to the airlines and businesses which depend on air transport provided a wake up call for regulators – maybe we need to do some risk assessment here. (Ya think?) So now, the aircraft engine makers and regulators are working their fingers to the bone to figure out just how much ash is too much ash for safe jetting about.
So, if Eyjafjallajökull acts up again, how safe will it be to fly? (This is a question near and dear to my heart, as I have a trip to London coming up…) The European Air Safety Agency has published recommendations to operators of jet aircraft which allow flight in airspace with a “low contamination” of volcanic ash. However, the document does not define how low the concentration must be to allow safe operation. Carriers are probably looking to Alaska Airlines for some help in making volcanic operation safe. Since their service are covers volcanically active Washington State and Alaska, they have had ample opportunity to learn how to fly safely during eruptions.
So will I get on the plane if Eyjafjallajökull gets heartburn but the airlines are flying? Yes – I think that the level of awareness and safety checks on the part of carriers and regulators reduce the risk to an acceptable level for the occasional traveler, but I will feel better when testing has been performed to put some firmer numbers around this problem. In the meantime, I plan to curl up with the ICAO Manual on Volcanic Ash Clouds, Radioactive Material and Toxic Chemical Clouds and a cup of tea.
Last post for today… my train is almost to NYC and no volcanoes in sight.