Crisis point: anticipating the unexpected

London
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The volcanic ash cloud was a learning experience. But airline chiefs would be much happier if they did not have to experience a crisis to learn from it. With that in mind, the UK Civil Aviation Authority is looking to identify potential "black swans", which chief executive Andrew Haines describes as "very low probability, high impact events" that threaten to seriously disrupt airline operations.

"The ash cloud was a force of nature. Can we stop it from happening? Absolutely not. Can we be better informed? Yes. We have been doing a lot of work with other organisations to make sure we are better prepared," he says.

Predicting future black swans is tough, as by nature, they are extremely unlikely, but Haines gives a couple of examples. One is solar flares, large explosions in the sun's atmosphere that release huge bursts of energy and radiation. This can affect airline and air traffic control radio transmissions, while severe instances could have potential to wreak havoc on satellites, possibly affecting satellite communications and GPS navigation.

Another is the risk of Fatty Acid Methyl Ester (Fame) contamination in jet fuel, which is often transported in pipelines that handle other types of fuel, creating a risk of cross-contamination. For example, the bio-component in biodiesel can cling to pipe walls as it passes through and release into the following product - possibly jet fuel. The Fame tolerance agreed by the major engine and airframe manufacturers is fewer than five parts per million because, at high enough concentrations Fame can affect the thermal stability of fuel and its freezing point, creating a risk of engine flameout.

In a bid to head off these and other black swans, Haines is planning to "set up some form UK aviation crisis group; a pool of expertise". The issue, Haines explains, is that experts with very specific skills are difficult to move once they are entrenched in a situation. But, by forming the panel ahead of time, the issues can be debated, skills pooled and the group can be drawn together in the event of a crisis.

"We, the aviation industry, have got to be as prepared as we possibly can to minimise disruption. We need to work together on that," says Haines. "Our problem is successfully guessing what the next black swan will be."

More on the volcanic ash cloud crisis