12 DECEMBER 2011

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Article from BTNews 12 DECEMBER 2011

COMMENT: easyJet is not the airline to AVOID

easyJet is now the UK’s largest airline – a position, and responsibility, it takes very seriously.

Last week the airline invited not only the UK press, but media from some eight European countries within its operational realm, to join senior staff, and outside experts, for a day out in Sicily.  There was a formal briefing on the possible consequences of a major volcanic eruption.  

Indications are that Mount Katla in Iceland shows signs of increased activity and one which is likely to create an explosion around 10 times greater than Eyjafjallajökull (April 2010) or Grimsvotn (May 2011).

Ash particles can severely damage a jet turbine.  Piston engined aircraft are not affected. 

Just to put things in perspective last year’s Eyjafjallajökull eruption cost the air transport industry in excess of £1bn and the seven-day closure of (essentially) European airspace, by politicians on technical advice, caused chaos all around the world. 

For easyJet the outlay was £57m.

Roll on 12 months and Grimsvotn erupted. 

Airspace was closed in the north of England and Scotland for 24hrs.  It could have been far worse but the then Transport Minister Philip Hammond was prepared to listen to what easyJet had to say.

Within hours of the 2010 explosion Ian Davies, easyJet Head of Engineering, was on to Dr Fred Prata a British scientist who works for a Norwegian research foundation.  Fred (Ian and Fred led the group in Sicily) had evolved a satellite model which can predict where, within metrological limits, the particles from a volcano explosion might travel.  It was his figures that convinced the British Minister that the dust could be flown around by normal scheduled flights and that no widespread airspace shut down was required.

Over the last two weeks easyJet has sponsored research using a light aircraft flying around the Etna region.  It has allowed the scientists to accurately investigate the volcanic dust cloud, its strength and potency, and distribution.  easyJet has done this on behalf of the industry.  However the airline is not completely charitable.  The solution will be sold to other carriers.

The easyJet answer is to mount a special infra-red camera on one of its Airbus A320 series fleet which will spot the dust cloud from 35,000ft and up to 60 miles ahead.  It will then be not difficult for the aircraft to circumvent the problem and pass the information on to other ‘planes.  The basis is simple.  All-weather radar has been fitted to aircraft since the early 1940s.  Couple this to satellite surveillance and in the future volcano action avoidance would become a standard airline procedure. The two-seat Etna aircraft had this kit fitted.  It is called AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector).

From a practical point of view, perhaps 20 kits would be built, and placed at strategic easyJet bases.

The airline should be praised for its initiative.  What a pity Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, its founder and major shareholder, was not present.  He would have enjoyed the day and its professionalism.  Past grievances need to be forgotten.  A generous dividend was paid this year.  AVOID is a clear demonstration of the airline’s focus on the future.  More fuel-efficient aircraft are not that far away.  Sir Stelios needs to be part of a constructive input for the way ahead.

Well done easyJet.

Malcolm Ginsberg
Editor in Chief

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