14 JUNE 2010

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Article from BTNews 14 JUNE 2010

COMMENT: Can good come from the Iceland ash?

Following the eruptions of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano on 14 April the politicians sprung into action.  Never mind that the captain flies the aircraft and makes the decisions.  Daily the professional pilot deals with hailstorms, icing, lightening, clear air disturbances and all the other potential problems of flying.  Volcanic ash is no different.

But not according to the politicos.  Here was an opportunity for the legislators to make a name for themselves.  They backed up their dubious decisions by talking to their “experts” forgetting that the real experts were the airlines themselves. 

Just to put the whole thing in perspective there are 500 active volcanoes around the world and 50 to 60 volcanic eruptions per year.

The Chileans and Indonesians are specialists at dealing with volcano problems on a very regular basis.  Whilst the recent Chilean earthquake was a disaster in human terms, from a practical point of view the authorities co-ordinated and spoke with one voice.  Flights were not lost and order was the way ahead, instead of chaos.  Just one country and one leader, a military man, clearly helped.

With the Icelandic eruptions the results have been the complete opposite. 

Or as IATA Director General and CEO Goivanni Bisignanai put it at the world airline gathering in Berlin last week, what happened was “mayhem”.

The cost has been enormous.  And not just for Europe, but for many other parts of the world too.  US$1.8bn revenue lost.  10m passengers stranded.  Air cargo halted.

Who knows what the total price tag is?  From an airline point of view alone you have to add the outlay in aircraft repositioning, extra crew night stops, and the work involved dealing with passenger refunds and cancellations.  Notwithstanding EU rules regarding compensation, designed for human not natural disasters, the magnitude of losses by travellers will never be properly known.

But it could have been easily avoided.

In 1960, yes 1960, Eurocontrol was created for the express purpose of creating a single upper airspace by its six founding member states. 

Over the last decade, air traffic has grown by more than 50%.  Europe now has close to 8.5m flights per year and up to 28,000 movements on the busiest days.  Eurocontrol membership now comprises of 38 countries.

Sadly progress has not been quick.  In October 2001, the European Commission adopted proposals for a Single European Sky (SES), to create a community regulator for air traffic management within the EU plus Norway and Switzerland.  There are discussions about enlarging the initiative to cover the Balkan and Mediterranean States. 

The talk is to have nine air traffic advisory centres up and running by the end of 2012.  Quite when SES would be operational is anybody’s guess.

Without a proper deadline the date will slip and slip.

Whilst the following is not a true comparison, it is at least topical.

South Africa was awarded the World Cup by FIFA in May 2004.  The opening date was cast in stone.  The target was met.

Likewise with SES.  The European Single Sky must become an entity.  It has been 50 years in the planning.  A realistic target date must be set.

Which brings us back to the Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

Had SES been in operation the outpourings from Iceland would have been dealt with by a professional team of aviation experts, including aircrew, geologists and weathermen.

Yes it has been a disaster for the politicos and travellers too.

But out of bad can come good.

The politicos must learn the lesson.  They have failed to implement SES.  And they have diabolically failed when it comes to 14 April and its aftermath.

All needs putting aside now and working for the common good for the future of air transport in Europe, and the world.  Eyjafjallajokul proved that we are truly in an aviation world.

MALCOLM GINSBERG

Editor in Chief

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