Memorandum submitted by the Manchester
Airports Group (SAGE 24)
1. This submission is made by the Manchester
Airports Group (MAG) in response to the Science and Technology
Committee's Call for evidence. MAG welcomes the opportunity to
2. MAG is the second largest UK airport
operator and comprises the airports of Manchester, East Midlands,
Humberside and Bournemouth. 24 million passengers travelled through
MAG airports in 2009-10 (across all four airports) and the Group
handled 409,000 tonnes of air freight. MAG generates around £3.2
billion for the UK economy and supports over 130,000 jobs nationwide.
3. MAG's comments will be restricted to
its experience obtained during the volcanic ash cloud crisis earlier
this year. Our experience in that crisis was exclusively concerned
with handling the consequences of the large-scale closedown of
European airspace on our airline customers and passengers respectively.
We were not involved in any way in the resolution of the crisis
from a scientific point of view. Our remarks therefore are of
a general nature only and will not attempt to answer in detail
each of the Committee's specific questions.
4. At the start of the crisis an extremely
cautious approach was apparently being taken by those responsible
for the management of UK and European airspace and those on whose
advice they were relying. Whilst this is understandable as an
initial reaction, it soon became apparent that, firstly, such
an approach was not being based on much hard evidence, for example
the use of "predicted" ash cloud coverage rather than
actual measurements and secondly, that there seemed to be relatively
poor coordination between the parties who were involved at the
start of the crisis, ie the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC),
the Met Office, the CAA and NATS. There also appeared to be no
direct input from Government.
5. It was apparent at the start of the crisis
that in spite of the International Civil Aviation Organisation
(ICAO) plans for a response to volcanic ash in airspace, there
had been no prediction for an event to affect UK airspace and
therefore no analysis and planning of such a scenario had taken
place for contingency planning. As the UK regulatory authorities
grappled with a response to the developing events, it was very
soon evident that the ICAO volcanic ash plans were outdated and
relied on assumptions that later proved not to have been based
on scientific evidence. It was then clear that no scientific tests
or certification had ever taken place to analyse and assess the
ability for aircraft or engines to safely withstand flight in
ash contaminated air.
6. What also seemed surprising was thatto
the publicthe UK and European reaction to the crisis appeared
to be unique, yet volcanic eruptions have occurred in other parts
of the world with regularity, and the disruption to air traffic
routes has been far less extensive. The closure of airspace was
seen as a gross overreaction when the sky above was seemingly
clear. (In fact it is well known within the industry that the
issue was that Europe and the Atlantic are the densest concentration
of air routes in the world and it is simply not possible to redirect
them all to avoid the ash. In other volcanic parts of the world,
conveniently, there is very little in the way of air traffic routes.
This only became clear to the public after the crisis).
7. It was also apparent that forecasting
was very poor. For whatever reasons, the industry was getting
forecasts that were changing significantly every time they were
updated. Airport operators needed to know in the evening what
the forecast for the following day was, so airlines could decide
what they intended to fly and passengers could be kept informed.
Forecasts issued in the morning could change completely from the
night before. If flights are to be cancelled, this should happen
in a timely manner, not at the last moment. Eventually the airlines
realised that the information being produced by the Met Office
was of very poor quality and made their decisions based on their
own view of the situation, not of the official forecasts.
8. In the first few days of the crisis,
nobody appeared to take responsibility for restricting flights.
The NATS response was to close controlled airspace for six hours
and then repeat the process every six hours. All airport operators
knew was that airspace would be closed for six hours when the
reality was that nobody would be flying for days. Announcements
such as "no flight in airspace x for the next 36 hours at
least but we will review the situation", would have been
far more preferable from an operational point of view.
9. The solution to the crisis came about
as a result of three factors, within two of which scientific evidence
(i) The scale of the crisis, the number of "stranded"
passengers and the inability of land and sea transport alternatives
to cope with repatriation, meant that finding a "solution"
became much more of an imperative. No form of contingency planning
had prepared for such a scenario. The crisis provides clear evidence
of the massive reliance on air transport for the UK.
(ii) Coupled with this, was increasing airline
impatience with the airspace closedown, and their willingness
to test-fly aircraft through ash clouds, or reputed areas of ash
cloud, as a means of ascertaining whether it was safe to fly.
(iii) The decision of the CAA to take the initiative
in resolving the crisis, by involving engine manufacturers, airlines
and others in working out safe rules, allowed much wider areas
of airspace to be opened up. Hence the CAA embarked on a very
rapid attempt to conduct some form of scientific certification
with the engine manufacturers. The CAA led it because the European
Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) team didn't seem to have the
expertisea concern given the fact that that EASA is also
now taking command of ATC and Aerodromes.
10. In the end, the resolution of the crisis
involved hard evidence from engine manufacturers about the ability
of their products to withstand moderate ash cloud exposure, and
from the airlines about their level of confidence in being able
to fly their aircraft safely. The solution was entirely science
and evidence based and involved all of the agencies working together
to find and acceptable solution.
11. The resolution of the crisis was also
achieved in a way that showed how different agencies can work
together to achieve quick solutions, when clear leadership, in
this case, by the CAA, was shown. "Normal" bureaucracy
was not allowed to delay matters. Less clear was the international
relationship and leadership from relevant EU agencies. Since the
event, the EU has begun to implement clearer means of responding
as a Single Sky entity to such an event. In spite of several years
of development of both Single Sky and EASA, it was clear that
a true European combined approach to the issues was not present.
12. Q3 asks about obstacles to timely scientific
evidence to inform policy decisions. The public and policy messages
throughout were often unclear, delivered by a range of agencies
or bodies and most frustratingly, often conflicted or changed
over time. The key weakness in managing and responding to the
dynamic situation reactively was the poor accuracy of the forecasting
models and also the models used for weather prediction, particularly
winds. At one point, the London VAAC had issued no-fly zones,
only for the Toulouse VAAC to discredit it by issuing advice that
those over France did not exist.
13. There are fundamental differences in
the ash forecasting models used throughout the world, in spite
of it being a global response plan. An example is that on some
models, ash is assumed to disperse or sink to ground after three
days, whereas the UK model continued to calculate forecasts using
ash data that was several days old and increasingly likely to
be inaccurate. In addition to the principles of the modelling,
the lack of ability to take scientific measurement must have been
a significant detriment to making improved forecasts.
14. Very few aircraft were equipped to take
samples and measurements (and certainly not any of the commercial
aircraft offered and used by a number of airlines and manufacturers)
and the sparse coverage by Light Detection & Ranging (LIDAR)
equipment severely hampered both the ability to check the accuracy
of the forecasting and to add scientific data to improve the process
of predicting ash concentration. In considering where improvements
could be made for future resilience, MAG would propose that it
is in the forecast modelling and the LIDAR coverage. Neither will
make a perfect arrangement for forecasting or to directly permit
flight in more dense concentrations, but they are reasonably deliverable.
15. Q4 mentions sources of scientific advice
and a research base. It should be remembered that research comes
at a cost that budgets rarely permit, even in the "good times".
What was experienced during the ash crisis was a once in 100-years
eventhow much effort and investment could reasonably be
considered justified? Research involving aircraft engines is inevitably
very costlythe work on biodiesel residue on aviation fuel
is evidence of that (now at least two years into a programme but
one that is still not fully funded to get to a clear conclusion
with all the relevant aircraft and component manufacturers).
16. In conclusion, the crisis was solved
by the CAA demonstrating clear leadership and using scientific
evidence to derive a workable solution to the problem of closed
airspace. There is no reason why such a scenario could not work
in any future crisis: it will work better when such leadership
is shown from the outset.
Manchester Airports Group
14 September 2010