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Westminster Hall

Thursday 10 June 2010

[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]

Volcanic Ash (Impact on Aviation)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr Vara.)

2.30 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I am grateful, Mr Benton, that you should be presiding over this debate; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

The debate is being held in Government time to allow us to consider the severe problems caused by volcanic ash in April. We are all too aware of the significant inconvenience and unhappiness caused to those who were stranded by the crisis or whose travel plans were disrupted. That alone merits the House's giving careful consideration to how the crisis was handled and how we should deal with the continuing threats caused by volcanic ash.

Hon. Members will be aware that the source of the problems is the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. I hope that the House will forgive my rudimentary attempts at Icelandic pronunciation; I plan to say the volcano's name a few more times today, so it might improve. For brevity's sake, however, hon. Members may prefer to call it E15, not least because mispronouncing it has caused a number of problems for media outlets across the world.

A key point is that the distinctive individual characteristics of different volcanoes can have a significant impact on the level of disruption generated by their ash clouds. Eyjafjallajokull has a number of features that are relevant to the matters that we are considering this afternoon.

First, previously recorded active periods show eruptions of varying intensity taking place over many months. That is in significant contrast to volcanic eruptions such as those at Mount St Helen's or Pinatubo; those were very intense, but they lasted only a matter of hours. Secondly, E15's caldera is capped with ice. Initially, the magma erupted through the ice cap, which caused rapid cooling of the magma, leading to its explosive disintegration into fine particles of ash. I am advised that fine particles of ash are more easily conveyed over long distances by the prevailing wind, and they remain in the atmosphere for longer than the larger particles produced by eruptions like Mount St Helen's.

Thankfully, E15 stopped emitting ash on 22 May. However, that does not mean that the crisis has gone away or that we should ease off with important activities meant to deal with the threat to flying posed by volcanic ash. The volcano could erupt again at any time over the next few months. Moreover, it is located 15.5 miles west of a larger volcano called Katla. Historical evidence indicates a worrying correlation between activity at E15 and subsequent eruptions at Katla. The risk of activity at Katla remains present. For a number of reasons, there remains an urgent need to address the issue and to ensure that we get the right safety and regulatory framework in the event of a recurrence of volcanic ash problems.

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I am sure that everyone here will agree that safety must be our paramount concern. Volcanic ash presents a problem for modern jet-powered engines for two principal reasons. First, the ash is silica-rich and therefore abrasive, especially when it hits aircraft at high speed. That affects forward-facing surfaces such as the windshield and the leading edges of the wings, and it can also lead to accumulation of ash in surface openings-including, most importantly, the engines. Secondly, the composition of most volcanic ash is such that its melting temperature lies within the operating temperature range of modern large jet engines.

The risks have been illustrated in a number of previous incidents, and I draw the House's attention to two of them. On 24 June 1982, a BA 747 jet, on its way from London to Auckland, flew into a cloud of volcanic ash 100 miles south-east of Jakarta. In rapid succession, all four engines flamed out and shut down. The aircraft entered a glide, dropping from 37,000 to 13,500 feet before the pilot was able to restart the engines; one of the engines failed again soon afterwards. Similarly, on 15 December 1989, a KLM 747 flying from Amsterdam to Tokyo flew into volcanic ash on the approach to Anchorage airport. Again, all four engines shut down. The plane dropped 14,000 feet before the pilot was able to restart the engines. Damage to the plane was reported to have cost more than $80 million.

I return to the crisis that we face in this country. The initial reaction of air traffic controllers and regulators in Europe was to follow the internationally established procedures set down in the International Civil Aviation Organisation's volcanic ash contingency plan for the European region. That plan is based on experience, and it provides that aircraft should avoid flying in volcanic ash. The scope of the zone affected by volcanic ash was determined by a computer model run by the Met Office, in its role as the volcanic ash advisory centre for the north Atlantic. Using data about the ash emitted from the volcano, the model is used to predict where the north Atlantic winds will carry the ash, and the potential peak concentrations of that ash. As a result, the Civil Aviation Authority and NATS imposed movement restrictions in UK airspace that had the effect of grounding commercial aircraft between 15 and 20 April.

That decision undoubtedly triggered controversy. However, it mirrored similar measures taken throughout Europe. It also reflected the advice of aircraft manufacturers at the time that aircraft should not fly in areas if there was a risk of ash being present. Whatever the merits of the choices made during the tenure of the previous Administration, it soon became clear that a rule that required complete avoidance of volcanic ash in affected areas would not be a long-term solution in Europe's congested airspace. That is why the CAA brought together airlines, regulators, and aircraft and engine manufacturers, to develop a new approach to reducing the disruption caused by Eyjafjallajokull.

After a review of test flight data, and in consultation with the airline operators, manufacturers and international partners, the CAA issued new guidance on the use of airspace on 20 April. That guidance reflected revised ash tolerance levels, as determined by the engine manufacturers. Put simply, it was established that there was after all a level of ash concentration that was consistent with safe flying. The area in which it was safe
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to fly was thus expanded, and aircraft were permitted to start flying again in UK airspace. That, of course, was immensely welcome.

The new regulatory framework designates three airspace categories. The first consists of airspace predicted to be free of ash, when no special restrictions apply. The second is a red enhanced procedures zone, when low ash density is predicted and aircraft are permitted to fly so long as increased safety and maintenance checks are carried out. The third category is a black no-fly zone, when predicted ash levels exceed safety limits and no commercial flights are permitted.

That was the situation in place when the new ministerial team took over the Department for Transport in mid-May. Given the hassle caused to passengers and the economic impact on airlines, the volcanic ash problem was clearly one of the most important issues for the new team to address. In the days immediately following the new Government's taking over, officials had to work around the clock to deal with the matter. We need to pay tribute to their hard work, under both this Administration and the previous one. The new Secretary of State's first official decision was to declassify the five-day ash concentration forecasts of the Met Office and authorise their publication, to assist the aviation community to tackle the crisis. He has focused time and effort on this matter every day since his appointment.

We have been working hard with officials, the Civil Aviation Authority and industry to ensure that such disruption to UK aviation is not repeated, even if there is renewed volcanic activity. Finding a safe way to achieve that goal is a high priority for us, which is why we put this debate on the agenda this afternoon. I look forward to hearing hon. Members' contributions and comments on this important matter.

Central to our efforts is an attempt to engage with manufacturers, to distinguish between concerns about safety and concerns about the commercial impact of ash damage to engines. Given that the issues cross both the aircraft's body and its engine, a key task for the CAA and the airlines has been to press the aircraft and engine manufacturers to establish, with clarity, what level of ash their engines can safely tolerate. That is a key question, and the Department continues to be actively engaged in that important process.

The general approach that I have outlined was endorsed at an international conference hosted by the CAA on 13 May. The conference brought together more than 100 representatives from organisations such as the European Commission, the European Aviation Safety Agency and Eurocontrol, as well as from the airlines, airports and manufacturers. I am pleased to say that on 17 May further progress was made. The CAA established an additional area for safe flying-a new time-limited zone-which is between the black no-fly area and the red enhanced procedures zone. Aircraft and engine manufacturers agreed that it was safe to allow operations in the new grey zone for a limited time at higher ash densities than were previously permitted.

To operate in the new zone, airlines need to present their national supervisory authority with a safety case that includes the agreement of their aircraft and engine manufacturers. Essentially, there was a doubling of the ash threshold for safe flying from 2,000 to 4,000 micrograms
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per cubic metre, which was a significant and a welcome step forward. However, I want to emphasise that the new Government are not letting up the pressure. We are also pushing for progress on the matter at an international level, both within the European Union and more widely in the International Civil Aviation Organisation. We want to see ICAO take forward the development of a new global standard on volcanic ash.

Turning now to the impact of this incident on passengers, I have immense sympathy with those who had their travel plans disrupted or who had difficulty getting home for work, school and other commitments. The situation must have been a nightmare for thousands of families stranded around the world during the Easter holidays. Certainly, the efforts made by the previous Government in aiding the repatriation of those passengers were subject to some controversy and criticism, and I imagine that during the course of the debate, hon. Members will want to recount the problems experienced by their constituents.

We need to acknowledge that many passengers felt angry and frustrated about how the situation was handled. Particular controversy surrounded the Madrid hub that was established by the previous Government to help bring home long-haul passengers. Nevertheless, to be fair, we should acknowledge that the Foreign Office did provide consular assistance to thousands of British nationals around the world. Additional capacity was also provided on Eurostar, the channel tunnel, cross-channel ferries and domestic rail to help passengers return home. Moreover, we should recognise the efforts made by the airlines and travel companies-initially to get people home by road, rail and sea and then by laying on extra flights once air space reopened.

Most passengers have statutory entitlements under one or both of the denied boarding, cancellation and delay regulations or the package travel directive, depending on the type of holiday that they bought. I do not propose to go into the detail of the rights accorded by such regulations, but further advice on them can be found on various internet sites, including that of the Air Transport Users Council. In practice, a proportion of passengers were provided with food and accommodation by their airline or tour operator until they could travel. Others covered by the regulation who opted for re-routing but who were not provided with up-front assistance are entitled to claim reasonable costs from their airline.

Most people acknowledge that the regulations did not work perfectly, but they were being applied in an unprecedented situation. There can be little doubt that the eruption of an Icelandic volcano was not a scenario uppermost in the minds of the legislators who drafted the rules. Their operation, therefore, clearly needs to be reviewed.

The response to the ash crisis is an important matter on the agenda for the next meeting of EU Transport Ministers, which will take place on 24 June and which the Secretary of State is planning to attend. Whatever the debate about the future of these rules, it is important to make one thing very clear and put it on the record. Despite the controversy surrounding the denied boarding rules and the undeniable burdens that they have placed on the airline industry in what was an unprecedented situation, we expect pending claims under those rules to be processed fairly, expeditiously and in accordance with the current law.

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I should like briefly to address some issues around the impact of this episode on the aviation and travel industry. A number of organisations and trade associations from air transport and related industries have asked for financial assistance from the Government to help meet the costs of looking after passengers, and to cover lost business during April. In the last couple of weeks, the Secretary of State has met the chief executives of the major UK airlines to discuss a number of topics, including this one. We appreciate and understand the concerns expressed by the companies that were hit with an unexpected bill so soon after the end of the recession and so soon after what everyone has acknowledged has been a very difficult period for the aviation industry generally.

The Government have not ruled out providing support for airlines, but I do not want to raise expectations. The starting presumption must be that it is for businesses to meet their own operating risks and legal liabilities. Moreover, EU state aid clearance would be needed if assistance were to be given. Even more importantly, the state of the public finances means that such assistance may not be affordable. My understanding is that although Governments across Europe may sympathise with the plight of the airlines, they are also constrained by similar concerns about affordability. Such a view can come as no surprise to anyone given the current financial situation, which has been all too apparent in news bulletins recently.

In conclusion, this was and remains an unprecedented situation. It required the rapid development of a new approach to air safety regulation and lessons need to be learned to deal with similar emergencies in the future. Indeed, they are already being learned, as is shown by the urgent work that the new Government have undertaken to seek improvements to the robustness of the regulatory framework and its ability to adapt and to respond to the challenge posed by volcanic ash.

In that regard, it is worth noting that with the adoption of the 17 May set of changes, which I outlined earlier, the maximum concentration of ash designated as being consistent with safe flying has risen by a factor of 20 since the decisions that were made at the start of the crisis in April. But let me emphasise that both the CAA and the Department for Transport are continuing to work hard with engine and aircraft manufacturers with the goal of establishing a further increase in safe ash tolerance levels.

Eyjafjallajokull may have stopped erupting for the moment, but no one can rule our further volcanic activity and further disruption during the coming months. So I want to close my opening remarks by assuring the House that the new Government will work hard to see that every effort is made to minimise any disruption, with the goal of avoiding a rerun of the events in April that caused so much mayhem and unhappiness for so many passengers.

2.50 pm

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): My constituency is home to Newcastle International airport. It is an award-winning airport that is crucial to the business success of the north-east region. The airport suffered during the recession of 2009, with passenger numbers down by about 10.6%. There was also a significant fall in profits and staffing numbers.

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The airport's authority has expressed to me its view that the analysis of the effect of the volcanic ash on aircraft has improved, as the data have become more widely available. However, it was unfortunate that, from the beginning of this incident, there were severe restrictions and that there was no alternative to the action that was taken.

None the less, without apportioning blame for this natural event, Newcastle International airport would like the House to be aware of the losses that it has suffered, no doubt like other airports across the country, as a result of it. The direct financial losses at Newcastle International airport have been established at roughly £1 million. However, that sum can be multiplied significantly when the effect of the situation on other businesses at the airport-for example concessions, catering, hotels, car rentals and so on-is taken into account, and that will have a significant effect on the economy of the north-east region.

The airport's authority has estimated that more than 75,000 passengers were affected by more than 780 flight cancellations. I am here today to urge the Government, on behalf of Newcastle International airport-and, I am sure, other airports in the UK-to work hard for compensation for airports as well as for airlines at the EU Transport Council on 24 June. I also urge the Government to work hard with the aviation industry to restore travellers' confidence in air travel.

2.53 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I also represent an airport, Aberdeen, which is one of the BAA group of airports. Like Newcastle International airport, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), it was affected by the volcanic ash. I will come back to that issue.

First, I want to thank the Minister for her opening remarks, which were really helpful in bringing us up to date on where we are and where we are going. I also want to say to her that, although the industry has suffered severe losses, I agree with her that this is not the moment for it to look to the public purse to resolve its problems. I do not think that that would be a realistic outcome. Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that this incident was a shock that had severe economic repercussions, especially for the aviation industry, which we all know does not operate on the widest of profit margins, even at the best of times-and these are not the best of times.

It has been estimated that the industry lost something in the region of £50 million to £100 million a day, or at least most of those losses were suffered by the aviation industry. Perhaps 25% of those losses were suffered by other industries. To quote the proverb, "It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good", and this was an ill wind-exactly so.

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