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

Memorandum submitted by BALPA (SAGE 38)

What are the potential hazards and risks and how were they identified? How prepared is/was the Government for the emergency?

  The potential hazard to flight was visible ash emanating from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

  The hazard was being tracked by direct observations by manned aircraft and the use of satellite technology.

  However, the use of computer predictions of ash dispersal in the atmosphere caused excessively large areas of airspace to be declared "at risk" from volcanic ash as there was no lower limit of ash concentration agreed prior to its usage.

  An anti-clyclonic situation blocked airflows and delayed the volcanic ash's full dispersion. This should have been anticipated by the Government's metrological services.

How does/did the Government use scientific advice and evidence to identify, prepare for and react to an emergency?

  During the early stages of the incident reliable evidence was lacking—this was particularly true of the Civil Aviation Authority. There existed no clear figures for how much volcanic ash is necessary to cause critical damage to an aircraft.

  Furthermore, there was little scientific data to analyse the quantity and type of ash present in a particular section of airspace. This lead to the situation where large swathes of unaffected areas were closed-off to flights.

  The estimates that we have are not much better than guesses; misjudgments could have serious results.

  We do now have a numerical indication from engine manufacturers of ash concentrations which are considered to present no risk, but for many years pilots have heeded the need to remain clear of visible volcanic ash and this has served us well.

  Volcanoes erupt constantly around the world, and our significant weather charts have provided the information needed for flight planners and pilots to avoid these areas of visible ash. Indeed in Europe operations have continued over many years to Catania during Mount Etna's activity even when ash visibly contaminated the ground of the airport.

  The difference this year is that a need to avoid visible ash was reinterpreted, we believe erroneously, to mean a requirement to avoid ash at any concentration, enforced by an Air Navigation Service Provider reducing the IFR flow rate to zero.

What are the obstacles to obtaining reliable, timely scientific advice and evidence to inform policy decisions in emergencies? Has the Government sufficient powers and resources to overcome the obstacles? For case studies (i) and (ii) was there sufficient and timely scientific evidence to inform policy decisions?

  There exists a method of estimating the density of ash that might be encountered, however this only applies to relatively large blocks of airspace and time. Therefore, an airfield that lies within a block of airspace within which critical density has been shown to be exceeded it will be closed for a minimum of six hours, even though there may exist an absence of ash below FL or within a large, though unspecified, distance.

How effective is the strategic coordination between Government departments, public bodies, private bodies, sources of scientific advice and the research base in preparing for and reacting to emergencies?

  Primarily, it was not clear to us who was holding centre stage on the key decision making. Responsibility seemed diffuse with no clear line of command. Clarifying how decisions are made should be an important focal part of this review.

  The Civil Aviation Authority, on 20 April called an "emergency meeting" of aviation stakeholders; billed as to include experts in the industry. However this meeting nearly wholly comprised of mostly management from airlines.

  Excluded from this meeting were those that were going to be asked to operate an aircraft in potentially dangerous conditions. This lack of input from representatives of pilots was not acceptable. We have members working across all UK airlines and not just those that were present at 20 April meeting—thus only BALPA represents the broad spectrum across the aviation industry.

  Aviation safety is predicated on an open culture where problems are owned up to and improvement is driven by experiences. We do not think that this precedent was followed during the Eyjafjallajökull incident.

  Finally, there exists public perception of pilots as professionals and custodians of their safety during a flight. Should BALPA have commented that the Association was unaware of what had been agreed behind closed doors and therefore could not vouch for flight safety during that period the results would have been serious indeed. We should not underestimate the public reassurance that BALPA and pilots provide to the travelling public.

How important is international coordination and how could it be strengthened?

  In the aviation industry international coordination is of paramount importance to Governmental action. However whilst aircraft operators have international experience of crises, this knowledge is often purely commercial.

  BALPA's international umbrella organisation [the International Federation of Airline Pilot Associations] holds a wealth of information that transcends commercial interests.

  It represents the international piloting community, and has experts that have dealt with volcanic ash incidents previously, including in Sicily, Indonesia and Montserrat. We believe that making using of collective knowledge of pilots at a cross-national level will strengthen the international coordination of domestic governments in dealing with crises that affect the aviation industry.


1 October 2010

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