Air travel: Heavy cloud forecast for Europe's single sky

Eyjafjallajökull ash clouds as seen from a NASA satellite, May 2010
Eyjafjallajökull ash clouds as seen from a NASA satellite, May 2010
Der Spiegel (Hamburg)

One year after air traffic was shut down across Europe following the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, airlines and European authorities are simulating a new ash cloud over the continent. Objective: better coordination. But that’s yet to be seen.

Once again menace lurks behind a cute name. Grimsvötn is the volcano that erupted in Iceland on Wednesday – a year after an eruption at Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull glacier shut down a large part of Europe’s airspace.

So far, Grimsvötn has been spitting only virtual fire. Its eruption is part of a simulation the EU is using to test whether the chaos of 2010 could happen again. The tests will run until Thursday evening, but their results will not be presented until June. One thing can already be said, though: the danger has not been averted, despite all sorts of working groups having been formed and contingency plans drawn up following the Eyjafjallajökull eruption.

The EU is now much better prepared than it was at this time last year, explains Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas. The Commission must also admit, however, that it has made little progress so far in the key issue. “The work on a single threshold indicator for shutting down the airspace is proving to be extremely demanding.”

A lot of announcements, but very little action

The question of threshold values in particular caused great confusion and a massive dust-up in 2010. A year ago there were no rules governing the ash concentrations at which aircraft could fly. Only shortly after the outbreak was a limit of two milligrams per cubic metre set. Earlier, German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer (CSU) had repeatedly imposed flight bans, which were harshly criticised by the airlines.

In the meanwhile, it has been revealed, the airline’s protests are apparently legitimate. According to a study published earlier this week by the German Aerospace Center, that two-millimetre threshold had not been exceeded on any day. Five days after the outbreak, it stood at just 0.2 milligrams, or one tenth of the permissible value.

Lufthansa has no desire to rehash the dispute with the Ministry of Transport. The criticism of the recent EU responses, though, is clear. “There were a lot of announcements, but very little action,” says a spokesman. A year ago the crucial problem was the lack of authoritative data. “We see this still hasn’t been solved today.”

The chaos would happen all over again

The Association of European Airlines (AEA) puts its position bluntly. “The chaos would happen all over again the same way,” explains a spokesman. Eurocontrol, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, is nothing more than “a bureaucratic talking shop at the supranational level.”

In fact, the track record of the EU leadership so far has not exactly been outstanding. On the other hand, there are now improved measurement systems and a division into three risk zones. Whether and when airspace will be closed remains the decision of the respective countries.

Unified co-ordination could only be brought about by the long-planned single European airspace, the so-called Single European Sky. But the project has been in the doldrums for years. As a first step, the 27 airspaces of the EU must be grouped into nine blocks. So far, only three have been organised – one of which is Germany together with France, Switzerland and the Benelux countries. According to the Commission, the remaining blocks should be formed by the end of 2012.

Genuine eruption of Grimsvötn is “overdue”

Whether the current EU rules already provide for a better response to a volcanic eruption should now be revealed by a direct comparison to the simulation. On Wednesday, the participants, which include 70 airlines along with the EU Commission, Eurocontrol and national regulators, will initially implement the rules of each individual country. On day two they will run through a so-called “harmonised European approach.”

From the airlines’ perspective, even improved air traffic control is not enough. Similar to motorists who are currently demanding evidence of the safety of the new E10 bio-fuel from the manufacturers, the airlines are requesting from engine manufacturers an assurance that readings below the two-milligram threshold pose no threat of damage to their engines. The issue of claims for compensation from passengers also must be clarified, insists Lufthansa. “Somewhere a line must be drawn to indicate just how far the airlines’ responsibility extends.”

In any event, there can’t be much time left for simulations by the responsible agencies. The Grimsvötn is showing signs of increased activity. According to the Würzburg geophysicist Bernd Zimanowski, a genuine eruption of Grimsvötn is “overdue”. By late summer or autumn the volcano could begin spewing ash. “If the wind is unfavourable,” the researcher warns, “it will be the same circus all over again.”

Translated from the German by Anton Baer

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