Today marks five years since Europe’s skies were plunged into an eerie quiet following the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull.
For eight days much of Europe’s airspace was empty of commercial flights following concerns that the volcanic ash would damage aircraft engines. It was the biggest air traffic shut down since the Second World War, with IATA estimating that it cost the airline industry £1.1 billion.
It was an unforgettable experience for everyone involved, and one that most people would probably never like to repeat. I was part of the NATS team that worked with the CAA, UK Met Office and DfT to develop a solution with the airlines and aircraft engine manufacturers that provided sufficient assurance for flights to operate safely.
These new procedures were developed in unprecedented time in order to get the skies moving again but while always ensuring that safety of the people flying was forefront in our discussions.
Last year when there were ominous rumblings detected from Bardarbunga, another Icelandic volcano, there was a lot of discussion about what would happen should another eruption take place.
For a start, we’d be very unlikely to see the same scale of disruption. Changes to safety regulations mean airlines can now fly at their own discretion and NATS would provide a service to any aircraft that needed it.
Initially, as in line with ICAO guidelines, a 120 nautical mile exclusion zone would be instigated around the eruption. The detailed process of understanding how severe the eruption was and the volume of ash expelled into the atmosphere would then begin.
The UK Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) – based at the UK Met Office – would then produce a forecast of the likely ash behaviour every six hours. That forecast would highlight the probable location of any ‘medium’ and ‘high’ levels of ash density.
Based on the VAAC forecast, the CAA would then issue a NOTAM advising airspace users of the location of those medium and high density areas. With that information and following procedures agreed with their own in-country safety regulator, airlines would then decide whether to fly and would issue their flight plans accordingly.
For those that do decide to operate, NATS would continue to provide an air traffic service as usual, routing aircraft around areas of ash much like we do during a thunderstorm.
In addition, a new capability has been established at a European level with the aim of aligning the actions of all parties in Europe with the ICAO guidance. The European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) is comprised of senior advisors from across Industry and European institutions and would be established in order to ensure that State decision makers are given the right advice and information to protect the safety and efficiency of the fights operating within Europe.
The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was an unprecedented event, but as you can see the industry learnt a huge amount. Next time will be very different.
What were your memories of the ash cloud?
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