A volcanic ash cloud, heavy snow and industrial action by air traffic controllers formed a perfect storm in 2010 that stopped the anticipated recovery of Europe’s airlines in its tracks. Aimée Turner examines how the industry went about improving network recovery to avoid airspace and airport closure in future
The supreme irony of the Icelandic volcano eruption that grounded thousands of flights, nearly put some airlines out of business, and left millions of passengers stranded was that it actually did wonders for the country’s tourism industry.
As lava cooled around the petulant Eyjafjallajokull, tourists began to flock to the island, creating a spike in volcano tours. World air travel did not fare so well, however.
The economic impact of the volcanic ash from Eyjafjallajokull was pegged by the OECD and the World Tourism Organisation of the United Nations at a hefty €1.7 billion with a similar amount thought to have been lost in tourism revenues.
European airlines took the full force during the week of the ash cloud disruption. The Association of European Airlines which represents Europe’s most important network carriers, documented the sorry fall-out of 2010, thwarting hopes of a recovery after the pummelling the airline industry took throughout 2009.
“The figures were of course severely distorted by the effects of external shocks, most notably the airspace closures associated with the Icelandic volcanic eruptions in April and May,” said the AEA in its yearly state-of-the-industry report.
Figures from European air navigation safety organisation Eurocontrol chronicle the heavy toll: nearly 160,000 flights were cancelled between January and November, including 100,000 due to the volcano with the remaining cancellations representing a 150% increase from 2009.
Brian Flynn, the then head of network operations at Eurocontrol, explains that at its worse, the Icelandic volcano succeeded in shutting down the airspace over 75% of the landmass of Europe with eastbound traffic from the North Atlantic forced ever southwards in an effort to enter European airspace.
“All the benefits of initial growth coming out of recession were lost in Europe. We probably ended up in 2010 with only 1% growth in air traffic when our original projections were for between 2-3%,” said Flynn. “In 2007, delays generated €1.3 billion of costs to the airlines. That got a lot worse in 2010 at nearer €2 billion. And that’s without starting to quantify the direct and indirect costs to airports.”
Ash cloud concentration was not uniform however and large swathes of southern Europe were not as severely affected by ash cloud contamination as her more northern neighbours. And yet the rules laid down by global aviation’s standard-setting body ICAO were the only guide that national authorities had to go on – and that was very strictly interpreted by the authorities. “It was a risk aversion rather than a risk management strategy,” admits Eurocontrol’s Flynn. “Because we had no risk strategy it took us five days to move to an acceptable risk level”
Airlines rounded on the authorities for what they judged to be poor decision-making on the basis of excessively conservative ash concentration forecasts, claiming that there was no need to adopt such the draconian measures as wholesale airspace closure.
Although the crisis was initially managed on a no-risk total closure strategy, a small number of aircraft equipped to fly through volcanic ash clouds were dispatched and when they did penetrate these areas they found high concentration levels – but only in pockets. At the same time, a number of airlines carried out test flights using cargo aircraft, supplying vital extra information about concentration levels, on the basis of which a fresh risk assessment framework could be prepared.
Airframe and engine manufacturers, aviation safety regulators, airlines, meteorological authorities and research communities came together and introduced experimental thresholds of volcanic ash concentrations which permitted, subject to appropriate precautionary maintenance, the resumption of operations in some areas contaminated by volcanic ash.
The deal carved up the airspace into four different risk classifications:
- A white zone where normal flight operations apply
- A red zone – Enhanced Procedures Zone B – in which some volcanic ash may be encountered, but in which EASA considers that flights can take place.
- A grey zone – Enhanced Procedures Zone A – in which EASA recommends two approaches that allow flights under certain conditions.
- A black zone (No Fly) in which EASA recommends banning flights because predicted ash concentrations exceed acceptable engine manufacturer tolerance levels.
“The main evolution lies with a greater level of granularity in determining the Enhanced Procedures Zone, thereby establishing the grey zone. This will allow member states greater flexibility in deciding how to manage their airspace, allowing for less flight disruption while still ensuring safety,” said Eurocontrol at the time.
In retrospect, Flynn believes that had the more “granular” approach been applied at the time of the crisis, only 35% of flights would have been lost rather than the 54%.
Flynn adds that the crisis highlighted the principal weakness of the air traffic system in that decisions are invariably taken at local, national and regional level – and yet it essentially is a global system where decisions taken at any level have a knock-on effect. “The question remains, because aviation is a global industry, if one state has authorised operations for certain sorts of aircraft to operate, does that apply across Europe and furthermore, does that apply across the global region?”
Indeed, even the response to the volcanic ash situation among European states proved confusing at the time with some moving to open their airspace and certain routes early and determining their own rules of what constituted acceptable risk.
Add to that the fact that crises always throw up unique challenges which contingency planners just cannot foresee, and the decision over who exactly should be included in the chain of command adds further confusion to the mix.
Flynn is honest about the state in which European authorities found themselves. “The mechanisms to convene operational, policy and regulatory and political decision-makers needed to be ‘invented’. Uncertainty prevailed for several days with questions marks over who decides and certainly the decision criteria.”
Procedures and tools for managing such events had frankly been found wanting so post-Eyafjallajokull Eurocontrol set about establishing an effective crisis co-ordination infrastructure. That meant the founding of the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) to manage future situations affecting aviation in Europe. Activated when the normal operations environment is “exceeded”.
One of its importance tasks was to conduct overall coordination and control of all actions in any aviation crisis, collect all relevant information available during its evolution such as any meteorological, flight, airspace data, etc, and investigate relevant aspects, such as predictions on safety, impact, and event duration. Equally important, is its role in coordinating the work of ATM partners globally. Full scale simulation exercise are now routinely conducted to check and refine those EACCC procedures centring on a putative eruption of a volcano withn European airspace.
“Its mandate however does not extend to outside the European area so a flight is quite entitled to set off from Abu Dhabi, say, and will not receive a message telling that flight that it should not take off. There is no legal mandate to do that even though part of the airspace may be closed,” Flynn points out.
“Of course, NOTAMS will be issued by the state but there are so many NOTAMS, thousands issued each day. How is every airline supposed to ingest every single NOTAM issued and to spot the one that affects that one particular flight?” asks Flynn.
At ICAO level there has also been activity. Little progress on determining thresholds of acceptable levels of ash concentration had been made over the last 20 years and it took the Eyafjallajokull ash cloud to push the issue up the agenda covering as it did such large areas of high-density air traffic airspace.
ICAO’s International Volcanic Ash Task Force (IVATF) which was convened in July 2010 as a response to Eyafjallajokull released new draft rules that December which outlined its thinking in risk assessment guidance in flight operations management as well as best practice procedures of state aviation authorities.
Work here was focussed on new standards based on detection, thresholds and how contamination evolves, new ATM procedures and functions governing control flow in a future crisis situation. Airlines were also invited to exchange views on future risk assessment methodologies for natural hazards in general, and volcanic eruptions in particular.
At that point it looked likely that national aviation authorities would require all operators to observe a risk assessment framework that provides for an auditable and consistent method to make good safety decisions when contemplating flight close to, or into, airspace or aerodromes with known or forecast ash cloud contamination. And, indeed, that was the case with the eventual development of the first ever volcanic ash manual.
Entitled Flight Safety and Volcanic Ash (Doc 9974), the manual provides guidance which states may recommend to airlines when there is forecast volcanic ash contamination, placing the responsibility for such operations on the operator, under the oversight of the state regulatory authority.
It will always therefore remain at the discretion of the pilot to decide whether or not to handle the risk based on safety risk assessment drawn up by his airline employer.
This discretionary approach is significant. Post-Eyafjallajokull, although there was acknowledgement that a risk assessment framework should be embedded into an airline’s approved procedures, shifting decision making to the airlines concerned some pilots organizations which feared that pilots could come under pressure to fly against their better judgement.
Often overlooked is the role that effective communication played in the 2010 volcanic ash episode in alleviating some of the worst albeit avoidable effects of external shocks and this too is where Eurocontrol has applied some effort.
“We cannot prevent crises from natural phenomena but we can be a lot smarter when they happen,” says Flynn.
Eurocontrol has developed a toolset on its Network Operations Portal for all airspace users which depicts any form of airspace closure and calculates the profile of any flights whether or not they will fly into any danger area.
“Aviation is a global activity. We need this sort of activity to be available to all airlines and all ANSPs on a worldwide basis if we are to effectively deal with future crises,” says Flynn. “Data comes into Eurocontrol from the US’s Federal Aviation Administration on all flights over the North American continent and the North Atlantic Ocean. We can see every single flight in Europe with radar pictures refreshing every two minutes throughout Europe. But we have nothing to the east and nothing from the south. So how can we effectively operate a global industry if we do not have continual information sharing?”
Another of the system’s greatest challenges is how to integrate airports into the worldwide network from an information and decision-making perspective? As he points out, a crisis situation such as pandemics, security and severe weather can affect the airport but not the airspace.
“We need to know what are airport information needs and how do they differ from the needs of ANSP and airlines? Who represents the airports, the airport authority, the ATC? An airport is a complex series of partners and how do we share information with all of them,” Flynn asks. “Also, can an airline really be expected to inform all its passengers on events that are way outside its control and are perhaps taking place in another continent? We need global information allied to the needs of all stakeholders.”
The return to normal operations is also an area that should be examined, reckons Flynn, as normal operations need to be resumed gradually. “We need recovery plans but we cannot expect to get out of a crisis situation in a few hours or even a few days and we need to gradually restore network capability.”
“In order to do that, we need a true picture of demand. Today airlines tend to be quite late in updating their flight planning information and any time we have even a small crisis in Europe we find we have a great deal of “false” demand in the system. In other words, aircraft which intended to fly and filed a flight plan never cancelled that plan and did not inform the network about it.”
“We also need priority rules to recover from crisis situations. The airspace cannot just be opened up on a first-come first-served basis because that only prolongs the disruption.”
Intermodal forms of transport are one alternative that should come into play especially in a continent where city pairs are often quite close. Inter-airline co-operation is another.
“This begs the questions, what form of solutions could we use to move passengers from outside the European Union airspace. A great number of passengers were stuck for weeks due to the ash cloud and did not get to their destination for days until their airlines resumed normal operations,” says Flynn.
“When the system gets up and running it is overloaded so we have to take precautions and those should include a discussion of what the priorities are. Which flights should start first? Should they be transatlantic flights for their economic benefit impact, short haul or holiday flights? Priorities need to protect the system and to explore all the opportunities that are there.”
Indeed, the European Commission has quite wide powers in terms of transport policy to effect this sort of prioritisation.
Flynn believes that in terms of information needs each ANSP is not only beholden to each other but accountable to the world outside their own airspace boundaries. “What did we learn? We learned that clear decision-making criteria were essential and that the actors involved in that needed to be clearly identified. That went equally for the policy as it did at operational level. We also learned that the information requirements of the regulatory authorities, of the ANSPs, of the airlines, of the airports and even the passengers also urgently needs to take place on a global level.”