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
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 lackingthis 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
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 meetingthus
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
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