Memorandum submitted by the Airport Operators
Association (SAGE 39)
1. The Airport Operators Association (AOA) is
the trade association that represents the interests of British
airports and is the principal body with which the UK Government
and regulatory authorities consult on airport matters.
2. Our mission is to influence governments and regulators,
at national, European and international levels, in order to secure
policy outcomes that contribute to conditions for sustainable
growth in the airport sector.
3. Our airport members, some 70 in number, represent
the UK's international hub, major regional airports as well as
many serving community, business and leisure aviation. AOA actively
brings these members together to share expertise and develop common
approaches across the full spectrum of airport issues.
4. Working closely with our members, partners
and other stakeholders we play a lead role in promoting aviation
security, economic development, and environmental sustainability.
5. At the start of the crisis, members observed
poor coordination between the parties involved, namely: the Volcanic
Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC), the Met Office, the CAA and National
Air Traffic Services (NATS). Moreover, there appeared to be no
direct input from the government.
6. As a result, in the first few days, nobody
appeared to take responsibility for restricting flights. NATS's
response was to close controlled airspace for six hours at a time,
when the reality was that nobody would be flying for days. More
realistic announcements on how long airspace would be closed for
would have been much more helpful.
7. This reflected the highly cautious attitude
taken by those responsible for resolving the problem and those
advising them at the start of the crisis. While this might have
been expected at the very start, of what was after all a new situation
for the UK, we do not think the parties should have continued
in this vein.
8. Moreover, while the International Civil Aviation
Organisation (ICAO) had plans for a response to volcanic ash in
airspace (see point five, below); such an event had never been
considered for the UK and consequently there was no analysis,
or contingency planning.
9. As the authorities addressed events, it soon
became clear that the ICAO volcanic ash plans were outdated. They
relied on assumptions that later proved not to have been based
on scientific evidence.
10. Moreover, 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.
11. 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 reaction in the UK and
Europe seemed highly disproportionate. Part of the reason for
this was the businesses of UK and European airspace, whereas in
other part of the world, aircraft can simply be diverted in the
event of a volcanic eruption.
12. Official forecasting by the Met office was
also found to be heavily lacking. Airport operators required a
good and stable forecast to work with their airlines to plan operations
that would continue and those that would be cancelled for the
following day. However, often, forecasts issued in the morning
could change completely from the night before. This meant that
flights were not cancelled in a timely manner, but rather at short
notice. As a result of this poor forecasting, many airlines began
to make decisions based on their own assessment of conditions.
13. The solution to the crisis came about as
a result of three factors. Two factors involved the use of scientific
evidence. The three were:
(a) The sheer scale of the problem. The inability
of land and sea transport alternatives to cope. This left thousands
of stranded passengers and in effect public crisis in both real
and PR terms. The crisis provides clear evidence of the massive
reliance on air transport for the UK.
(b) The increasing airline impatience with the
airspace closedown and their willingness to test-fly aircraft
through areas where there were, or were supposed to be, ash clouds.
(c) 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. This resulted in wide areas
of airspace to be opened up.
14. The CAA embarked on a very rapid attempt
to conduct some form of scientific certification with the engine
manufacturers. This showed how different agencies can work together
to achieve quick solutions, when clear leadership is shown.
15. 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. 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 the existence of EASA, it was clear that a joint European
16. 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.
17. Question 3 is about obstacles to timely
scientific evidence to inform policy decisions. 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.
18. 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.
19. This meant the public and policy messages
throughout were often unclear, delivered by a range of agencies
or bodies, and most frustratingly, often conflicted or changed
20. 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.
21. Q4 mentions sources of scientific advice
and a research base. It should be remembered that research comes
at a high cost. 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
22. In considering where improvements could
be made for future resilience, we 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.
23. 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 solution would not work in any future
crisis: it will work better when such leadership is shown from
Airport Operators Association
12 October 2010