For those of you who don't know, I'm one of the million or more "ash refugees" around the world. Having come to Belfast for a conference last week, I've been the victim of two flight cancellations because of the closure of UK airspace since last Thursday as the result of the erupting Icelandic volcano. (Don't ask me to spell or pronounce the name. At some point I may try and copy-paste the name but not now.)Of course, this has raised many questions. It's clear that this is not a frivolous move on the part of the UK. Safety appears to be first in all things -- never mind the millions and millions of pounds being lost by cancelled flights. In this, I'm rather pleased to be in the UK, who are notorious about not being bullied into making decisions -- at the moment the more airlines and other agencies squeal the more intransigent the UK authorities are likely to get.But are they being overly cautious? In some ways, I hope so! I'd hate to be in the air over the North Atlantic and have the jet plane lose engine power owing to volcanic ash. And what is the realistic chance of this? In seeking some answers, I came across this:
The decision not to fly any aircraft across Europe since last Thursday is based on the latest guidance from the International Civil Aviation Organisation. In turn, the UK's traffic control organisation, Nats, and the Civil Aviation Authority follow the guidance to the letter.The flight which sparked this system was BA 009 - a 747 from Kuala Lumpur to Perth where all four engines stopped at 37,000 feet in 1982. An international agreement followed - and the bottom line now is that volcanic ash means no flights.The agreement set up a number of volcanic ash warning centres around the world. VAAC London (actually based at the Met Office in Exeter) covers Iceland - which is why the UK has taken the lead on this volcano.
It's an interesting piece, and well worth following up. Join me in the challenge.
Q: unclecharlie – "There seems to have been little discussion in the news surrounding how and when changes in the wind may blow the ash away from UK airspace. Is this because they are unlikely to have a major effect? Or is it because such changes are unlikely to happen in the near future (i.e within the next few days)?"A: DrGrantAllen – "In response to unclecharlie, the reason we can not accurately say when the plume will not be "blown our way" is because we have been subject to what we call a "blocking high", similar to the weather regime which brought the cold snap in early January. The eventual breakdown of blocking highs is hard to perdict accurately, perhaps only with 2-3 days notice. Currently, and thankfully, it would appear that there is a likelihood that this high pressure system will break down around Friday, which would mean a return to Westerly winds from the Atlantic, which would mean the ash would not be blown South as it has recently."via "Iceland Volcano - millions remain stranded" | guardian.co.uk
And finally, this one, which explains why (pace Rick) I am far happier to be grounded by the safety considerations being followed by the UK government and authorities than to be hurtling through the sky as part of the profit-loss calculations carried out by airlines and their accountants.
there's an innate rationality to the logic of allowing bad things to happen. After all, car manufacturers, like airlines, are in the business of risk management. It's part and parcel of their existence that they take calculated risks, some of which will affect the sanctity of life for a few, very unlucky individuals.
Ask the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and it will no doubt cite a plethora of reasons for why airlines keep losing money. But they all boil down to the fact that projecting human beings 35,000 feet into the sky without killing them is exceptionally difficult. That makes it expensive. Which makes an invisible risk factor, costing £130m a day, something many airlines would prefer to brush under the rug.
... European airlines have been quick to rubbish claims by air traffic controllers that passengers are at risk. BA, KLM and Air Berlin insist the modest number of test flights they ran over the weekend conclusively prove the threat is overblown. The IATA says Europe's reaction to the disaster has been an "embarrassment". Yesterday, Simon Jenkins suggested on Cif that our healthy and safety culture had caused aviation authorities to overreact.
You shouldn't listen to any of them. Even if it turns out the duration of the flight ban was excessive, hindsight is a wonderful thing and that conclusion will only have been reached after days of testing.
I'm with Martin Rivers. So far, I'm stuck in Belfast now -- till Monday coming!