It is day four of the ash cloud disrupting flights to, from, and between Australia and New Zealand and it is clear the situation has progressed from combating ash to waging PR warfare justifying decisions to fly aircraft or keep them grounded.
“It would have been far easier to simply cancel flights and it’s taken a lot of effort by our Operations teams to develop alternative flight plans to continue to get passengers to their destinations,” was the first swipe, made by Air New Zealand yesterday announcing it had operated 473 flights around New Zealand and across the Tasman on Sunday.
The quote was attributed to Chief Pilot David Morgan and undoubtedly in reference to Qantas, who over the past few days has cancelled all trans-Tasman flights and scores of domestic flights.
Air NZ explained domestic services had been operating only to a maximum of 5500 metres (18,000 feet) while trans-Tasman flights “were given new flight paths heading much further north than normal before crossing the Tasman”.
This provided for another swipe at Qantas. Morgan said: “The extra distance involved required the use of 10% more fuel, but has meant customers were able to safely get to where they needed to go.”
Swipe number three was retaliatory from Qantas. In an opinion piece in the Herald Sun, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce defended the airline cancelling flights: “Qantas does not decide to cancel flights lightly. I have no doubt that our actions over the past few days have been correct.”
Joyce explained Qantas’s policy, based on guidance from ICAO, was “not to fly into areas where the concentration of volcanic ash is unclear. This is the key test that Qantas has used over recent days.”
Morgan made it clear Air NZ “will not fly through ash”, so where is the disconnect? The same meterological information showing the altitude of the ash cloud is above 18,000 feet, upon which Air NZ made its decision, is available to Qantas.
Does Qantas have further information, such as how the ash concentration below 18,000 feet is “unclear”? Or, buying into Morgan’s connotations, Qantas is not willing to foot the bill for extra fuel required to permit safe, albeit less operationally ideal, flying?
A similar debate over the presence of ash, and its affects, occurred in Europe during its ash cloud event last year and again this year. Last year the Finnish air force released images showing the affects of volcanic dust ingestion from the inside of a Boeing F-18 Hornet. KLM conducted a test flight in the midst of the ash cloud, as did Lufthansa, with neither reporting any findings. British Airways conducted its own test this year, also with no adverse findings, while the UK’s Met Office, which operates the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, had to defend its tracking system’s projections made despite lacking an aircraft to test ash levels.