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Comment: Would Europe flounder again if the ash cloud returns?

When the Eyjafjallajökull volcano spewed its ash into Europe's skies in April, airlines claimed that stopping flying completely was unnecessary. The fact that they have been proven right does not mean that next time there is an ash event, flying will continue more or less uninterrupted.

There is a lot of money riding on getting it right next time. Speaking at the Keilir Aviation Academy's conference on Eyjafjallajökull and Aviation last week, Stephen Perkins, head of the OECD's joint transport research centre, put resulting global primary and secondary losses at $1.1 trillion. So, with an incentive like that to get it right, why would Europe get it wrong again? Influential delegates and speakers at the conference are worried that although European governments, national aviation authorities and air navigation service providers have agreed to work together, when the crunch comes they might not do so. Meanwhile the conference also heard that there is a 6% per annum chance of an eruption by Eyjafjallajökull's larger neighbour Katla.

Cancellation board, © SIPA Pres/Rex Features
 © SIPA Pres/Rex Features
It would be even less fun next time

A fundamental reason for Europe's organisational confusion in April was that, although the necessary knowledge and expertise to manage such a situation efficiently exists globally, it was dispersed globally among individual volcanologists, meteorologists, engine and airframe manufacturers and airlines. The kind of knowledge and expertise needed to manage Europe's post-Eyjafjallajökull airspace had not been assembled by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, and in Europe itself the expertise existed in pockets that were not connected to the decision-making process. Put simply, an event like this had not been anticipated, in Europe or anywhere else. There has been no precedent in aviation history for atmospheric volcanic ash affecting a large area of such high traffic density.

So although Europe has accepted that the initially adopted no-go ash density levels were far too conservative, and that mistake will not be made again, this crisis has also thrown into sharp relief the fact that even the best of global knowledge on atmospheric ash remains an imprecise science. And although it looks as if the probable legacy of Eyjafjallajökull would be a system where airlines are provided the best available quality of ash data and then left to make the decision as to whether to fly or not - as they have always done with weather conditions - that requires a mindset change among the authorities away from pure risk aversion and towards risk management.

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