As Chile’s Puyehue-Cordon Caulle volcano eruption brings operations to a halt at Melbourne airport and causes disruptions across the country, New Zealand, and to South America, the question to keep in the back of the mind is: has the Southern Hemisphere learned from the north about ash and its impact on flying?
It is an open-ended, not rhetorical, question. Europe, after all, remains divided on how accurate scientific data can be in predicting no-fly zones as well as the affect, or lackthereof, on aircraft flying through ash. (If you find yourself flying through ash, here is what Boeing said in a 1999 article are the nine steps to handle the situation.)
This region may only be entering day three of its ash cloud, but there are already some questions.
First, Jetstar and Qantas started cancelling domestic and trans-Tasman flights on Saturday and Sunday while Air New Zealand elected for its domestic services to fly below 20,000 feet, the lowest altitude the ash cloud was expected to be at. For its trans-Tasman services, Air New Zealand re-routed aircraft to avoid the ash.
“We can operate quite clearly, in the domestic airspace at altitudes below 20,000 feet quite safely and across the Tasman we initially start off at a low altitude then once clear of the predicted ash zones climb to normal cruising altitude,” Air NZ chief pilot David Morgan said in a statement.
Qantas states its “approach to flying is based on our own high standards of safety and risk assessment. It is always safety before schedule. Qantas has significant experience in managing and assessing the impact of volcanic ash on flight operations.”
Second, Virgin Australia declared it would halt all operations at Melbourne airport at 7pm Sunday night while Qantas selected 6pm. If the two are acting differently on the same information, why is there not coordination to maintain safety and operations? And if the two have two sets of information, why is there not one set?
Fortunately this region will not encounter Europe’s main problem last year with Eyjafjallajökull: sever lack of information and coordination across borders. Just two air navigation service providers–Airservices and Airways–cover the bulk of the antipodean geography compared to the dozen-odd providers in Europe.
From a business, not operational, perspective, European airlines came out of the ash cloud with two key lessons learned: the need for large cash reserves and loosening of cross-border merger regulations. The former is obvious for airlines here, as they experienced over the past year with the New Zealand earthquakes and Queensland floods. The latter is not as direct and will lack thrust unless the Chilean ash cloud replicates Iceland’s prolonged and widespread presence. Also, this region is well-liberalized compared to Europe, although Air New Zealand and Virgin may very well like foreign ownership restrictions lifted while Tiger would like to see its Australian business be permitted to fly internationally from Australia.
Some worthwhile links around Flightglobal about Europe’s experience with ash cloud:
- Video: last year’s ash cloud created the largest disruption in the history of air travel
- Last year’s ruption upset could have been avoided
- Europe practices for next ash event
- European procedures coped with last month’s small ash cloud
- Archive of all ash cloud reporting