After The Dust Settles
Eruption of Eyjafjallajokull on March 27th; Wikipedia
Summer travel is gearing up, the dollar is stronger against the euro than it has been for a long time and the Continent is beckoning. But with memories of the logistical chaos that plagued flight paths in and out of Europe due to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland recently, it bears considering whether volcanic ash could ruin your summer travel plans. But one European low-cost carrier, easyJet, is fighting the ash attack head-on, as the world's first airline to use ash detection technology aboard its aircraft.
The goal for easyJet, which lost up to $110 million as a result of the volcanic eruption, is to "make large-scale ash disruption history" by testing and ultimately implementing ash-detecting technology on its airplanes, according to the airline's Chief Executive, Andy Harrison. The first test flight with this technology on board will be carried out by Airbus on behalf of easyJet within the next two months.
The technology, called AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector) uses infrared imaging to pinpoint the presence of ash at high altitudes, allowing pilots to divert their routes to avoid it, instead of staying grounded.
"We are actually detecting the silicates [present in all volcanic ash], which is what damages the engines, and we can see it from 100 kilometers [roughly 62 miles] away, probably more," says Dr. Fred Prata, a scientist with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research who has spent decades developing the AVOID technology. The airline plans to install the system in 12 of its planes by the end of the year.
"What we imagine is the aircraft can be flying along, and the image that detects the ash can be integrated with radar display or a separate device, so if pilots see an ash cloud way in the distance, they can start to make a very gradual maneuver," explains Prata, adding that the presence of ash can be relayed to air traffic control in order to divert other flights.
Iceland's April 14 volcanic eruption cost the airline industry $1.7 billion dollars of lost revenue in the days that followed, when some 100,000 flights were grounded.
"It was something that has never happened before in aviation history," says Stephan Orth, travel editor for Spiegel Online in Hamburg, Germany. "People started traveling like they did 50 years ago -- passengers were stranded in Istanbul, and they had to take trains back to Germany from there. Suddenly you realize it takes three days to get somewhere if you can't fly there."
Dr. Prata maintains that if his ash detection system had been taken up in the mid 1990s, then the cost in time and money for airlines and passengers could have been avoided. "There would have been some extra costs since there would have been some diversions, but the whole system would not have been shut down."
However, if easyJet's trials prove successful, there are some issues concerning moving planes around airspace, according to corporate aviation safety consultant Charles Justiz. Once the ash is detected by the systems, there's another problem with "doing evasive maneuvers in international air space over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It's difficult to make changes in your position there because there isn't radar coverage over those areas, so it's almost impossible to get re-routes."
But just how much does volcanic ash compromise the safe operation of an airplane? Critics, many of whom include airline operators, maintain that the decision by the Civil Aviation Authority to close airports across the UK following Eyjafjallajökull's eruption was over the top. Research following the eruption has led to the safety limit for the level of ash concentrations planes are allowed to fly through to be increased, lending credence to the idea that the initial reaction was exaggerated.
While no planes have crashed due to volcanic ash, there are several well documented cases of severe engine trouble as a result of contact with silicates, which can interfere with the blades and vanes in aircraft engines and lead to loss of thrust and engine stall, among other problems, according to the U.K.'s Civil Aviation Authority.
"We know it wasn't an overreaction," says Richard Taylor, a spokesperson for the CAA, referring to the agency's decision to close air space. "No work had ever been done to see just how much volcanic ash aero engines could cope with. So in the absence of any firm advice, the action was to avoid flying through ash. We had to restrict flying so we could find out what we were dealing with."
Throughout the Iceland eruption, reports of previous incidents were well documented, including a 1982 British Airways flight over Indonesia, during which all four engines of the Boeing 747 shut down after coming into contact with ash spewing from Mount Galunggung volcano, southeast of Jakarta. During the incident, the captain announced: "We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get it under control. I trust you are not in too much distress."
The engines eventually re-started and the aircraft was able to make a safe emergency landing, but only after the captain had to put the plane into a nosedive to avoid oxygen starvation within the cabin.
Despite the enormous effects of the eruption, Prata says Eyjafjallajökull is not a very foreboding volcano in the grand scheme of the world's geological potential. From the Pacific Ring of Fire to the West Indies and Central and South America, the Earth has many active volcanoes. The list of places where ash could interfere with air travel is far longer than areas where it is not considered an issue, he adds. For example, Guatemala City's international airport was closed for several days in late May due to ash associated with Pacaya Volcano, while in Ecuador the Guayaquil airport was recently closed due to the eruption of the Tungurahua volcano.
"This [Eyjafjallajökull] was a relatively small eruption, it kind of brings a smile to our faces because it's the kind of eruption we would normally ignore," says Prata, who adds it was the conditions that made it significant. "The winds were blowing all the ash into Europe, and there was interaction between hot magma and glacial ice that made it very explosive, and shock waves made very, very fine ash that could be transported much farther."
Eyjafjallajökull is currently calm, but there's no doubt it will erupt again, "we just don't know when and how bad," Prata says. And while the CAA cannot yet endorse the AVOID system itself, spokesperson Taylor says the agency does applaud easyJet's move to address the problem directly.
"We said from the beginning that it's up to airlines and manufacturers to come up with technical solutions to cope with volcanic ash," says Taylor. "Obviously, we know it's dangerous and there needs to be some sort of technical solution. And this is a step down the road to find that technical solution."