Why is it Suddenly Safe to Fly Through Volcanic Ash Cloud?

The Icelandic volcano (Eyjafjallajoekull for those that care!) that has caused so much disruption in the UK and European aviation industry is still erupting. So the question on many fearful flyer’s lips is; why is it now ok to fly through the ash cloud?

Ok, a little background information to start. This country has never experienced an event such as this before, and safety regulations were not amazingly clear when the ash cloud entered UK airspace. Therefore the authorities (CAA, NATS, and the UK Government) decided a blanket ban on ALL flights in UK airspace was necessary.

This response has been heavily criticised, but it shouldn’t have been. These measures were implemented as there was not enough information to contemplate allowing aircraft to fly through the ash ‘blind’. Over the next few days, there were a lot of test flights and information gathering by top scientists, the Civil Aviation Authority, the MET Office, and – of course – the airlines.

The research resulted in a relaxing of the ‘blanket ban’ of UK airspace, and allowing planes to fly through ash of a lower density. Up until today though, aircraft were still not permitted to enter any higher density ash.

As from today, the CAA are allowing airlines to enter what is called the Time Limited Zone (or TLZ). This is an area of higher density ash and airlines must present a safety report to the CAA from their respective engine manufacturers stating that it is safe to fly through this zone. Some airlines will only be allowed to fly in this area for a set time limit (per aircraft), whilst others will be permitted to use the TLZ without limits – if the engine manufacturers ensure it is safe to do so.

The No Fly Zone (or NFZ) is still in place, and this will be where the airspace is fully closed. As the maps only show predicted contamination, relevant Air-Traffic Control (ATC) agencies may be permitted to open this airspace – but only with proof that the level of ash contamination is below the required level.

The Enhanced Procedures Zone (or EPZ) remains in place, and aircraft entering this area will require more checks than normal procedures stipulate.

So, in short, it is still not safe to fly through the volcanic ash cloud, but authorites are working hard to ensure flight disruptions are kept to a minimum whilst still ensuring the safety of crews and passengers. Not a single decision has been made on a whim, but on detailed scientific research and meetings with aircraft and engine manufacturers.

This is a statement by the CAA Chief Executive Andrew Haines today;

“I’m pleased that the huge efforts we’re all making across aviation to keep flying safe whilst minimising the disruption from the volcano have resulted in further progress. Unprecedented situations require new measures and the challenge faced should not be underestimated. Firstly because the standard default procedure for aircraft that encounter ash, to avoid it completely, doesn’t work in our congested airspace. Secondly, the world’s top scientists tell us that we must not simply assume the effects of this volcano will be the same as others elsewhere. Its proximity to the UK, the length of time it is continuously erupting and the weather patterns are all exceptional features.

“The answer can only come, therefore, from aircraft and engine manufacturers establishing what level of ash their products can safely tolerate. At an international aviation conference we held last Thursday, attended by all the leading airline operators this approach was welcomed and supported. The manufacturers are co-operating fully and urgently in this task and the new zone is an excellent example of how the industry should be working to move the issue forward and I commend Flybe for its work.

“It’s the CAA’s job to ensure the public is kept safe by ensuring safety decisions are based on scientific and engineering evidence; we will not listen to those who effectively say ‘let’s suck it and see.”

The Airline’s Response to Airspace Closure

Some airline’s have publicly slated the way in which the authorites have handled this unprecedented event. I am proud to say I work for an airline that hasn’t done so, and instead have assisted the authorites with their research. In my opinion, those that have spoken out are merely worrying those that have a fear of flying as they are implying their motives are purely commercial. Rest assured the authorites will not be ‘bullied’ into opening airspace. They will only allow flights if they believe it is safe to do so – regardless of the cost to the aviation industry and the level of disruption.

So, is flying still safe?

Definitely. Just because more airspace has been made available does not mean we are simply hoping for the best. These decisions are based on research, and a lot of it! Restrictions are constantly being reviewed, and the relaxation of some limitations will continue – but ONLY if safe to do so.

Will there be more disruption?

I’d put my life savings (that’s about £20 then!) on there being more disruption in the coming days and weeks (and possibly months and years). As long as the volcano continues to erupt, there is the very strong possibility that No Fly Zones will be force over the UK and Europe again. But, with continued improvement in the regulations, we can only hope that this can be kept to a minimum.

Safety is always the number 1 priority…. no exceptions.

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