Aviation authorities in Europe are trying to improve the appropriateness and efficiency of their responses following the eruption of complaints in the wake of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud fall-outs (EBAN May 2010).
EASA reports intensive work with aircraft and engine manufacturers to establish appropriate measures to ensure aircraft remain airworthy when flown in airspace with low levels of contamination from volcanic ash. "There are currently no 'volcanic ash' certification specifications and the agency is collaborating with ICAO to establish new standards," it says. Airbus was among manufacturers to welcome a unified industry agreement on acceptable tolerance levels for flight operations after data available from tests was analysed. Eurocontrol says it is time to move towards a harmon-ised European approach that permits flights but only where safety is not compromised.
But Travelport president and ceo Jeff Clarke wants to develop a US-EU taskforce on global emergency communications. "While the impetus for Travelport's recommendation was the spring 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 virus, the confusion over travel and trade advisories and bans brought about by the spread of the volcanic ash cloud over Europe emphasises the need for an official mechanism to coordinate crisis communications and decision making," he says.
Charter operators and brokers are used to responding when scheduled airlines fail customers but were initially held back by a 'one size fits all' response that grounded private as well as scheduled aircraft. However, the private aviation sector is able to play to its strengths once 'no fly' bans were lifted.
DC Aviation successfully positioned business jets at airports such as Salzburg and Marseilles and made use of available, unobstructed flight corridors. "We were able to bring a large number of business travellers back home, as well as transport a number of them to their business meetings on routes such as Salzburg-Dubai and Montpelier-New York," the company says.
Flight bookings have, however, been inhibited by the fear factor. Capt Christof Ramputh, flight operations manager of Europ-Star Aircraft GmbH, reported many clients reluctant to fly outward, fearing further eruptions and resultant airspace closures might possibly strand them. But he adds: "Undoubtedly we expect to see a certain segment of traveller avail themselves of the convenience and flexibility of private aircraft travel as a result of the disruptions of the volcano, which profoundly hampered scheduled commercial operations.
London Executive Aviation (LEA) chief executive Patrick Margetson-Rushmore says there was a welcome rise in bookings and enquiries as corporate and private customers tried to circumvent airline backlogs. Bernhard Fragner of Globe Air says: "The volcanic ash cloud was a real mess and a disaster but definitely also an opportunity. Many people organised alternatives themselves using a substitute such as the car or train but we were still able to help many others."
Dan Rusu of MJet GmbH points out: "Obviously there have been significant business opportunities, but there is not much you can do in force majeure conditions, especially when these are valid for such a large area. The damage that can be caused by the volcanic ash to the engine fan blades, external sensors and generally to the airframe represent a risk which cannot be taken, therefore we understand the safety concerns of the involved authorities."
Seawings Seaplane arranged tours of Dubai for stranded tourists while Ray Mills, operations director Private Sky, reports that the volcanic ash problems presented a major opportunity to companies with an ability to react quickly when airspace reopened.
Konstantin Novikov, head of sales and marketing of Aero Charter Airlines, says it was an opportunity and a problem. "There were many requests related to stranded passengers who were trying to reach their homes in Ukraine mainly from EU but our CJ3 was stuck in Berlin losing revenue although the scheduled airline backlog then gave us further business opportunities."
Tanya Molskaya, marketing and communications manager of PrivatAir SA, says there were increased requests for long haul private flights from people who could not get back to Europe on scheduled services. "We are also transporting people in light aircraft at low altitudes to move them from open commercial airports. Overall, we have received many charter requests, but very few US carriers were prepared to fly into most of Europe and most EU carriers were grounded for several days due to the ash and the 80 per cent reduction in airspace capacity."
Bel Air Aviation rued the cancellation of all flights offshore from Denmark but did what it could to help clients.
NetJets Europe Mark Wilson recalls: "The cancellation of more than 95,000 commercial flights across Europe over seven days lead to major backlogs at main commercial air hubs. However, NetJets Europe's scale and ability to access smaller airports, such as Biggin Hill and Farnborough in the UK, got its owners home."
Charter operators and brokers are refining their response techniques while hoping for a more fact-based and appropriate response from civil aviation authorities.
The damage volcanic ash can cause
Volcanic ash comprises highly abrasive particles that may damage aircraft components, particularly forward facing surfaces of external parts and engine components. Airbus advises: "They are made of sharp rock fragments that will easily erode plastic, metal and even glass pieces. In service events show that aircraft may suffer from extensive damage after volcanic ash encounter."
In some cases a wide variety of parts were removed and replaced after they were sand blasted. These included windshields, forward cabin windows, navigation and landing lights cover, wing, stabiliser and fin leading edges, engine nose cowls and thrust reversers, and pitot and static probes.
"Ingestion of volcanic ash by engines may cause serious deterioration of engine performance due to erosion of moving parts and/or partial or complete blocking of fuel nozzles," it warns.