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By the Book: New Regulations Set to Ease Ash Crisis

We look at the new regulations looming in Europe after the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, the Icelandic Volcano. The new regulations will loosen some of the tighter aviation regulations that were put for flying in ash conditions. 



 New Europe Rules


There was an uncomfortable irony when regulators in the United Kingdom told British Airways’ combative CEO, Willie Walsh in May that he couldn’t fly his planes due to the levels of volcanic ash continuing to drift over the country. Walsh emerged to address the gathered press only to see the skies above him criss-crossed with jet plumes from aircrafts. You can fly above 20,000 feet over Britain argued the country’s Civil Aviation Authority, but for Britain’s main carrier that meant they couldn’t land at their target destinations – a policy that was costing them an estimated $28 million a day.


It was, in Walsh’s typically forthright opinion, “a gross overreaction to a very minor risk”.What might appear to be regulatory absurdity is, though, grounded in very real and very important science. Testing in recent decades has demonstrated that ash clouds from volcanic eruptions will damage jet engines, block a plane’s sensor instruments and cause other damage – and unlike in the United States, safety concerns remain with the aviation authorities across Europe and are not at the discretion of the individual airlines. Whatever the economic considerations, they had a duty to ground any planes at risk based on grounds of care.


However, there was some relief for Mr Walsh and his fellow aviation bosses as new tolerance levels for ash were agreed. Initially, as testing data from the leading manufacturers was presented to the European Union transport ministers and it was agreed – subject to member states’ approval – that a new safety code determines that no-fly zones are those areas with more than 2,000 micrograms of volcanic ash per cubic metre. Between 2,000 and 200 micrograms now requires planes to take extra precautions, while below 200 micrograms is considered no threat at all. Earlier regulations had set the no-fly zone at 100 micrograms per cubic metre.


In the UK, which lies underneath some of the busiest airspace on the planet, the Civil Aviation Authority then introduced a further extension, allowing airlines with engine manufacturers’ guarantees to fly through densities of 4,000 micrograms per cubic metre at certain times and for limited periods. Introduced on May 18th, this new regulation would have cut budget carrier Flybe’s cancellations from 380 flights to just 21 during the second wave of ash. Britain also removed a “buffer” zone around the areas of highest density ash.


In addition, the European Union, in conjunction with Eurocontrol, will create crisis cells to enable speedier co-ordination of such events - able to monitor feedback from airlines, air traffic control and meteorological stations. “When you are dealing with people’s lives it is not enough to say, this guidance looks a bit restrictive, let’s just make up a less restrictive one,” said Andrew Haines, the UK CAA’s chief executive. “You have to agree to new safety guidelines that are evidence based.”



Do you agree that the EU regulations regarding flying in ash are too stringent? Are the proposed changes to the regulations warranted? Tell us what you think.



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