Volcano Hysteria Does the Aviation Industry Share the Blame for the Chaos?

The shutting down of Europe's airspace was an overreaction to the volcanic eruption in Iceland. The ash cloud soon dissipated so that it no longer posed a danger. Yet the chaos was caused because for years the airlines and manufacturers failed to agree on an efficient warning system.


By , Wolfgang Reuter and

Aircraft captain Eric Bos, 43, squinted into the sun as he scanned the sea of clouds below him.

Was that a gray haze over there? Or was it just a shadow? "Do the clouds back to the left on the horizon look darker than usual?" he asked his copilot. The Lufthansa Airbus was cruising through the thin air over Sweden at roughly 800 kmh (500 mph). Then Bos answered his own question: "No, I think there's nothing there."

The captain has been flying for Lufthansa for the past 22 years. But there was nothing routine for him about flight LH 8936 on Tuesday of last week. Only nine passengers were on board the big bird -- and most of them were atmospheric researchers. The scientists were hunting for extremely fine dust particles, only micrometers in size and allegedly highly dangerous.

More than a dozen measuring instruments were bolted into a container in the hold of the long-haul jet airliner. The only piece of cargo on board weighed 1.6 tons. This equipment from the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany was linked to an orange submarine-shaped object on the underside of the aircraft. Air particles were channeled through three inlets into the interior of the container, where they were precisely measured to determine their mass, size and chemical composition.

"Have you found anything up there?" asked the ground personnel over the radio. But Bos had nothing exciting to report: "It's just as we expected. There's nothing to see up here."

This observation symbolizes the dilemma faced by European airlines over the past week. With each passing day, the ash from Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano dissipated even further. But at what concentration did the ash no longer pose a threat to aviation? When was there no longer a danger that the sharp-edged particles could cause engine failure? Since no one knew the answer, aircraft in Europe had to stay on the ground -- and they remained grounded longer than was necessary.

Approximately 100,000 flights were canceled, leaving millions of passengers stranded. Assembly lines -- at BMW, for example -- stood still. Economists were already warning that the gentle recovery could quickly end.

A Warning System on Autopilot

From the point of view of the airlines, it was immediately clear who was to blame for the flight ban that caused billions of dollars in losses: overly fearful politicians and bureaucrats in Berlin and Brussels -- and incompetent scientists who reportedly didn't even manage to take timely measurements of the ash content in the volcanic cloud.

The reality, however, looks different: Airlines and primarily the aviation industry are responsible for a poorly prepared warning system that went on autopilot during the crisis.

There is a global network of nine volcanic ash observatories under the direction of the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO). The early warning center located in London sounded the alarm on Wednesday the week before last. A cloud of ash from Iceland was rapidly moving towards the continent. The result: Europe's airspace was shut down.

But it was unclear how to proceed after that. "The system very effectively ensures that airspace with clouds of ash is closed," says Werner Knorr, head of flight operations at Lufthansa, "but it doesn't say how air traffic should resume once the cloud has dispersed."

For nearly 20 years, no one in Europe has paid much attention to these fateful guidelines, which were collectively developed by the airlines, their umbrella organization the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and aircraft manufacturers. It wasn't until clouds of ash from Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano reached the continent that the aviation industry recognized that it had maneuvered itself into a dead-end with its vague regulations. "Quite frankly, nobody here in Europe expected a situation like this," says Knorr.

Then meteorologists predicted that even more ash from Iceland would be on the way for a number of days. "But a glance at the bright blue sky told us that the concentration of ash had long since fallen," says Knorr.

How could they test this supposition? The ICAO early warning system is based primarily on computer simulations. There is no actual network of measuring instruments to determine the exact concentration of ash.

Self-Created Impasse

To make matters worse, the emergency plan does not even specify at what concentration it is safe again to fly -- because the aviation industry has refused for years to introduce maximum levels for volcanic ash. This gap in the regulations led to a self-created impasse. "When the rule was introduced, it was the airlines who wanted flight bans in the case of the very existence of a cloud of ash," says Larry Mastin, a volcanologist with the US Geological Survey.

Just three weeks prior to the eruption on Iceland, the US researcher took part in a conference organized by the ICAO and attended by scientists, government agency representatives and aviation industry executives. The main bone of contention: thresholds for clouds of volcanic ash. Mastin: "We were frankly disappointed that the engine and aircraft manufacturers were once again still unable to name any reliable limits."

Engine manufacturers, such as MTU Aero Engines in Munich, justified themselves by saying that the composition of volcanic ash varies too widely. This makes it difficult to determine a comprehensive limit, says MTU spokesman Odilo Mühling, who adds that engine tests are expensive.

"The real reason is that the manufacturers are probably more concerned about damage claims," says Herbert Pümpel, who is responsible for the Aeronautical Meteorology Unit at the World Meteorological Organization. With the introduction of official thresholds, airlines could try to force engine manufacturers to pay for costly repairs if turbines were damaged by small amounts of ash. "Dismantling a single turbine right down to the last screw costs €4 million ($5.3 million)," says Pümpel.

Pooling Expertise

Under the pressure of recent events, however, everything suddenly gained speed. What supposedly couldn't be achieved in two decades was suddenly possible in just two days. "It's a miracle," wrote industry players in internal e-mails. On the weekend before last, a unique crisis coalition convened. During dozens of telephone conferences, representatives of science and industry decided to link their monitoring stations to determine the dust concentrations of the volcanic cloud.

And suddenly there was an ash limit for the turbines. The initiative was launched at the highest level. Lufthansa CEO Wolfgang Mayrhuber called Airbus CEO Thomas Enders and complained about the disaster for the airlines.

Airbus went into action. "We called up Boeing and the major engine manufacturers and pooled all the expertise that we could find," says Airbus spokesman Rainer Ohler.

The beleaguered aviation executives were aided by a large number of researchers who -- on their own initiative -- had already collected data on the actual concentrations of ash. "We have many technical possibilities," says Carl Brenninkmeijer from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

In Europe there are two dozen laser devices that can continuously test the air for aerosols. "All we have to do is gather these scattered data," says Brenninkmeijer. This is exactly what happened on that fateful weekend in European aviation history -- resulting in the equivalent of an all-clear signal for the entire continent.

Virtually Harmless Concentrations

Large swaths of the closed airspace had dust concentrations similar to those that often occur over desert regions or the polluted industrial centers of Asia. The Lufthansa measuring flight with the MPI researchers furnished an additional degree of certainty: "The majority of the measured values were between 20 and 125 micrograms per cubic meter," says Brenninkmeijer -- a concentration that engine manufacturers have now suddenly classified as virtually harmless.

According to ICAO regulations, however, all of these new results are of no consequence: If there is even the hint of an ash cloud in the air, all aircraft are to be grounded. The German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer could have ignored the ICAO guidelines, "but in this complex situation, nobody wanted to take responsibility," says Elmar Giemulla, a Berlin-based expert in aviation law.

Lufthansa CEO Mayrhuber called Ramsauer over half a dozen times the weekend before last, even at 8:15 a.m. on Sunday morning. Ramsauer told Mayrhuber that he was merely observing the ICAO regulation. "This was agreed in conjunction with the associations, particularly the IATA, and thus also the airlines," he said with irritation. Even Lufthansa had contributed to the wording of the regulation, he added. But Mayrhuber urged the transport minister again and again to "see things more pragmatically" in view of the looming economic losses.

Legal Sleight of Hand

The Lufthansa boss' insistence finally paid off. Resourceful bureaucrats found a solution that resembles a legal sleight of hand. In the event of a volcanic alarm, the ICAO regulation excludes "instrument flying" in contaminated areas, meaning that the pilot is guided by air traffic controllers. What is not explicitly prohibited, however, is so-called controlled visual flying, where the pilot is not allowed to steer into clouds. Air traffic controllers also guide pilots during this type of flight procedure, but they don't give the pilots binding instructions -- instead, they merely issue "recommendations."

This trick led to the absurd situation that German airlines were able to conduct hundreds of flights at the beginning of the week, although the ash cloud had remained virtually unchanged. It wasn't until Tuesday evening that the volcano stopped spewing ash towards Europe and the air traffic situation eased somewhat.

Roundtable Talks in Berlin

At this point in time, government agencies had long since come up with a new regulation that ignores the old ICAO guideline and makes it possible to react more flexibly. It resembles the pragmatic approach that is used to deal with volcanic eruptions in places like Alaska. According to this new guideline, when flying through only mildly contaminated airspace, the airlines are to report the observations of their pilots to a dedicated operations center run by the German Civil Aviation Authority in Braunschweig. Furthermore, they have to shorten the maintenance intervals of their turbines. In return, the aircraft may continue to take off and land when there are small quantities of ash in the air.

Regulatory agencies in Britain have gone one step further and established the first official limits for ash concentrations. This is based on the surprising results that emerged from the crisis summit organized by Airbus.

The long-awaited figures can be found in a letter that engine manufacturer General Electric sent to its customers. They were informed that it has been agreed that flying with up to 100 micrograms of ash particles per cubic meter of air is completely harmless. It went on to say that given appropriate precautionary measures, aircraft could take off with even as much as 2,000 micrograms of ash per cubic meter of air.

Meanwhile, German Transport Minister Ramsauer has called on the industry to conduct additional volcanic ash tests on turbines. He has also invited experts from government agencies and aviation companies to attend roundtable talks in Berlin this Tuesday. Next week there will be a special meeting of EU transport ministers to discuss a Europe-wide regulation on ash limits. According to Ramsauer: "The existing regulations resemble a marvelous control panel with connections that lead nowhere."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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