'Europe Must Act' Anger Mounts over Volcano Crisis Response
Airports are open again, but the critical questions about Europe's handling of the crisis created by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano are stewing. The air travel chaos of the past week has underscored a serious problem in the 27-member European Union's crisis management. It is so deep that even officials in Brussels are angry.
Across the continent, airports are operating and the airlines are flying again, but the complete halt to air transportation in Europe over the past week -- the first such instance in history, with more than 100,000 flight cancellations -- will be the subject of heated debate in the coming weeks and months.
The industry estimates that the cost of the closure of European airspace totalled $1.7 billion (around 1.3 billion). According to estimates by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the flight ban paralyzed, at least for a time, around 29 percent of all global flights. Over the weekend alone, $400 million a day in revenues were lost. The Association of European Airlines (AEA) is estimating total losses at close to $1 billion.
IATA President Giovanni Bisignani has sharply criticized the European Union for its lack of leadership in the crisis. "They have succeeded with the euro and with Schengen (Europe's open borders treaty)," he said on Wednesday in Berlin. Europe even came to an agreement on aid for Greece, he added. But the EU still hasn't succeeded in reaching a unified deal on air travel, where airspace decisions are still the dominion of individual member states, he said.
In fact, European airspace is to a large degree still representative of the small-state mentality that prevailed in Europe a century ago. For decades, governments have unsuccessfully sought to reach agreements on unified controls, independent of borders, but they have never gotten past the talking stage. Instead, last week, each state had to independently interpret the guidelines from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which were created after dangerous flight incidents involving volcanic ash in the 1980s. "They state: When there's volcanic ash in the air, airplanes have to stay on the ground," Bisignani said, summarizing the guidelines.
Five Days for an EU Response
Despite the seeming absoluteness of these rules, numerous volcanic eruptions have occured around the world since the 1980s and countries and airlines have been able to navigate the problems without disrupting air travel across an entire continent. In the United States, for example, special planes are dispatched with measuring equipment to determine the precise location of an ash plume. Once its scope has been determined, airspace is only closed in directly affected areas where the density of the ash justifies the decision.
Outside the banned area, flights can still take place if the pilots assume responsibility for them. "I hope Europe's governments will move forward with great urgency," so that the system here can function similarly, the IATA president said.
And even after an official government declaration by German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer on Wednesday, Bisignani's question of why it took five days before EU transport ministers managed to organize a conference call -- days in which airlines around the world lost $1 billion -- remained unanswered. It also remained unclear why the 27 EU member states were unable to coordinate and quickly dispatch research planes to collect accurate data about the volcanic ash plume. In some instances, research planes weren't even equipped with the measurement tools needed and they first had to be upgraded.
European Commission Pushes for Unified Skies
The European Commission has urged member states to better coordinate flight safety. A spokesperson for European Transport Commissioner Sim Kallas argued in Brussels that the crisis could have been better managed if new regulations approved by the member states in December had been implemented. "If we had a stonger coordination at the European level," Kallas's spokeswoman Helen Kearns told reporters, according to German news agency DPA, "the decision would have been taken more quickly."
The lack of coordination between the 27 national air traffic authorities created a serious problem. The "Single European Sky" initiative approved in December is supposed to eliminate the fragmentation of European airspace control. Under the plan, a European air traffic manager would be appointed who could intervene in a crisis like the one that emerged last week. But the new rules are being implemented in phases and will not be fully in place until January 2012.
But Kallas argues that the process needs to be expedited following this week's crisis. The European Commission is also demanding that the recommendations made by the European coordinator be binding. But that issue still hasn't been resolved with member states, the spokeswoman said. The regulations still leave decisions over whether to close airspace in the future to national authorities.
"Member states will always remain sovereign on closing their airspace ... for security and defense reasons," Luc Tytgat, the European Commission official in charge of the Single European Sky initiative, said according to DPA. But he added that there was a possibility of "penalties" for air traffic authorities that do not follow the advice of the EU air traffic manager.
Currently, coordination is managed by the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), which was established in 1960. The organization coordinates airspace for 38 European countries, including the 27 EU member states, but it has no legal authority over its members.
- Part 1: Anger Mounts over Volcano Crisis Response
- Part 2: Criticism of Blanket Flight Ban