EUROCONTROL map marking the movement of ash clouds over western Europe as of 4:00pm May 23rd 2011

This entry reviews European regulators crisis management activities following the latest volcano eruption in Iceland, and its potential impact to aircraft’s safe flight and operation.

Eurocontrol latest statement issued Monday, May 23rd 2011 at 4:00pm Brussels time indicated that changing meteorological conditions now increased the possibility that the ash clouds from Iceland’s Grimsvötn volcano could in fact begin to affect Scotland and Ireland air spaces within the next 24 hours. The announcement contrasted with a statement published earlier today suggesting that no disruptions were expected for the next 48 hours.

Today’s Eurocontrol activities were marked by the re-activation of its European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) whose first meeting involved States, European Commission, EUROCONTROL, EASA, Air Navigation Service Providers, Airlines, and airport associations after the May 21st, 2011 eruption of Iceland’s Grimsvötn volcano. The EACCC was first set up on May 19th, 2010 following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano.

Eurocontrol also directed flight operators to the guidance provided through the European Aviation Safety Agency’s newly revised Safety Information Bulletin SIB 2010-17R3 titled “Flight In Airspace with Contamination of Volcanic Ash”. The document offers a framework allowing airlines to make risk-based determination on whether they will conduct flights on areas subjected to ash contamination. This EASA guidance emphasizes an approach already promulgated by the International Civilian Aviation Organization (ICAO)’s “Management of flight operations with known or forecast volcanic cloud contamination” version 3.1 published on December 19th 2010 and whose procedures were tested during a volcanic ash exercise held in April 2011. The ICAO International Volcanic Ash Task Force IVATF at the origin of the guidance document was formed in July 2010 as a response to the Eyafjallajokull volcano eruption which disrupted air traffic operations in Europe in March-April 2010 to the extent of an estimated more than $1 billion lost by airlines in about a week.

EASA guidance

The guidance implements 3 main elements.

1. It offers a revised colors scheme for identifying volcanic ash concentration on charts that are made available by the London Volcanic Ash Concentration Advisory Centre (VAAC). Cyan color will now mark areas of low contamination, grey color will define areas of medium contamination and red color will signify areas of high contamination.

2. The levels of contamination have further been defined according to the concentration of ashes as measured in samples of air. Concentrations values lower or equal to 0.002 grams/m3 identify low concentration areas, values between 0.002 grams/m3 and 0.004 grams/m3 define the medium concentration range while values above or equal to 0.004 grams/m3 determine areas of high concentration.

3. The impact to flight operations

The guidance also provides advice on critical aircraft parts that must be thoroughly inspected following a flight with possible exposure to ash clouds. These include:

-”wing leading edges, navigation and landing lights, radomes, landing gear, horizontal stabilizer, all extruding structure, pitot tubes and static ports, windows and windshields, engines inlets and nacelles, engine compressors and turbines, engine oil systems, rotor blades”.

To that end, operators are instructed to monitor for the following occurrences as a way to determine an in-flight encounter with ash clouds:

-”acid odors similar to electrical smoke, rapid onset of engine problems, St Elmo’s fire, bright white/orange glow appearing at the engine inlets, dust in the cockpit or cabin, sudden unexpected outside darkness, airspeed fluctuations, landings lights casting sharp, distinctly visible beam.”

The risk-based approach would allow operators to conduct flights under accepted conditions that must be presented to their nation’s competent authority provided that risk assessments factor-in the type of airplane to be flown in medium and high contamination areas and ascertaining that manufacturers data confirm assumptions regarding operational safety of both engine and aircraft in the given contaminated area.

4. The involvement of ‘Competent National Authority” to clear flight operation.

Competent National Authorities in the countries from which such flights will operate are also granted authority to open traffic to medium concentration areas following reconnaissance/clearance flight observations and upon review of contingency flight operations plans provided by airlines. Such plans must incorporate additional facts:

-pilot briefing regarding concept of flights in the area of medium contamination

-additional fuel in the event of the flight being re-routed due to changing environmental conditions

-designation of alternate routes and airfields such as complying with ETOPS rules

-altitude constraints in the scenarios of an engine not functioning and or decompression taking place.

These measures are set to provide a decentralized way to manage and counteract potential disruptions, by delegating authority to airlines and national regulatory bodies on a discretionary basis. Following last year crisis, carriers had issued strong recriminations regarding European regulating agencies unilateral decisions to curtail flight operations without, as some later viewed it, concrete basis. For regulators the perception of potential hazards to the flying public had, it seems far outweighed the actual losses incurred by the industry.

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