Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies - Science and Technology Committee Contents

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 respond.

  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grappled with a response to the developing events, it was very soon evident that the ICAO volcanic ash plans were outdated and relied on assumptions that later proved not to have been based on scientific evidence.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 that—to the public—the 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 was used:

    (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 expertise—a 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 event—how much effort and investment could reasonably be considered justified? Research involving aircraft engines is inevitably very costly—the 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

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