EZY’s ash cache

EasyJet has just airfreighted – to a test centre at Airbus Toulouse – a tonne of Icelandic volcanic ash, collected by the Institute of Earth Sciences, Reykjavik. 

The ash, with a consistency like fine talcum powder – but very harmful to airframes and jet engines – will be used in an airborne experiment planned for August. It was actually gathered from Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that grounded all Europe’s airlines for a week in April 2010, and here’s a video of the team gathering it.

For nearly three years now, EasyJet, Airbus and Nicarnica Aviation of Norway, have been developing and testing an airborne sensor that will be able to “see” atmospheric volcanic ash, enabling pilots to avoid it. I reported on one of the earlier trials in this blog about 18 months ago.

This trial will involve two Airbus aircraft, one of which injects the ash into the atmosphere, creating a real ash cloud, and an A330 fitted with an AVOID infra-red ash sensor in a wingtip pod to enable the crew to detect and avoid it

The ash cloud will be monitored by satellite imaging, to gauge the accuracy and effectiveness of the AVOID trial.

“We hope this system will contribute towards three-dimensional, dynamic mapping tools to allow the airlines to take  decisions for safe flight with the full knowledge of the current location of ash clouds,” says Manfred Birnfeld, senior flight-test engineer for Airbus.

EasyJet likens the AVOID system to “a weather radar for ash”. Created by Dr Fred Prata, chief technology officer at Nicarnica Aviation, the pod-mounted infra-red sensor supplies images to pilots, and potentially to airline operations centres. The plots can “see” an ash cloud up to 100km ahead at altitudes between 5,000ft and 50,000ft, enabling them to make small adjustments to the flight path to choose airspace that’s free of ash.

“This will be the perfect science experiment,” says Prata. “We will know exactly how much ash we have placed in the atmosphere, and also its concentration and composition. AVOID will then measure it and demonstrate the technology.”

EasyJet’s venture into volcanic ash tracking technology development shows impressive lateral thinking. Not, in fact, the kind of thinking normally associated with the low cost carrier stereotype.

If you doubt that assertion, test it by trying to imagine Ryanair investing time and money in a system that would potentially benefit the industry as a whole. For all the raucous protesting by Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary  when his airline was grounded in April 2010 because of airborne ash, investing in a system that would not deliver specific advantage to Ryanair is not his style. But, to be fair, IAG’s CEO Willie Walsh – then chief of British Airways – protested just as loudly at the time, but has not shown this kind of imagination either.

As with all experimental systems, AVOID is not guaranteed to be a total success. So there is financial risk, and airlines at present are probably at their most risk-averse in aviation history. 

So why is EasyJet, with Airbus and Nicarnica Aviation, taking the risk?

Well, volcanic ash will definitely affect European airspace in the future, the only question is when. 

With some of its aircraft fitted with Avoid, EasyJet may be airborne with 100% load factors of zero-discount (but grateful) passengers when its competition is grounded.

But actually – and EasyJet knows this – aircraft-mounted AVOID will play its part, along with other sensor technologies – space-based  and ground-based – in mapping ash in the the skies to make the airspace usable for all carriers.

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