Blowing in the wind

This first appeared as a Comment in the 19 November issue of Flight International

A prototype airborne volcanic ash detector has just been proven – beyond doubt – to work.
So what? There has only been one serious ash event in the history of aviation. That was April 2010, when an Icelandic eruption grounded Europe’s aviation for a week, immobilising travel and tourism, and hitting business hard. Estimates put the cost at $5 billion.
But that was three years ago, and it may not happen again for another 100 years. So why would an airline invest in an expensive piece of kit that it may never use?
That is the conundrum the industry now faces. Since the successful Avoid ash detection trials at the end of October, there has been a choice: do something, or do nothing.
EasyJet, Airbus and Nicarnica Aviation have gone out on a limb to develop this ash detection technology. It has now passed its proof of concept. But is anybody interested? Because unless airlines are, the development of a commercial, retrofittable airborne ash detection unit is unlikely to attract the necessary investment. If that is the case, a good idea will die, and when the ash cloud returns  – and volcanologists say it is when not if – there will be much hand-wringing.
An airborne ash detection system is only a part of the total ash-tracking system, but it is an essential one. It is the tactical component that gives the pilots the chance to steer around ash concentrations if they encounter them.


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