Monday, May 17, 2010

Should Airlines get compensation for volcanic ash airspace closures?

Branson's Rash Bash at Cash for Ash will not Wash.

"Sir" Richard Branson demands compensation from the taxpayer for the losses caused by the Eyja&c volcano. Well, he can stuff his demands right up his exhaust vent. The airlines have only themselves to blame for the blanket ban, because they have had nearly 30 years to work out tolerable levels of volcanic ash, and they have failed to do so.

The Civil Aviation Authority has a review paper on volcanic ash. In it we learn that in the last 12 years, there have been 60 close encounters with volcaninc ash, resulting in 7 engine failures. All cases restarted when the plane dropped below the ash cloud, but this happy outcome requires that the failure occurs at height. It's only a matter of time.

In 1982 the International Civil Aviation Authority set up a Volcanic Ash Warnings Group. There was a Symposium on Volcanic Ash and Airline Safety in Seattle in July 1991.  How come standards of ash tolerability were not set up by these groups? Did none of the highly-paid and knowledgeable  experts there think to consider what levels of ash were flyable and what were not? Clearly, the assembled company decided against setting up a regulation level, and we can reasonably suppose that this is due to a free market, low-regulation mindset on the part of the industry.

Levels of ash must be set with a wide margin of error. Within areas that have been declared within the limits of toleration, there will be areas of higher density, and an aircraft with the misfortune of hitting such a stratum might exceed tolerable levels. Present in-flight radar cannot detect such layers. So it would seem sensible to design and fit a small device, maybe using laser-back-scatter, as an ash density detector on all aircraft in these troubled times.

There is a striking parallel with what is happening at the Deepwater rig right now. Oil companies know that blowouts occur, but they treat each new blow-out as a one-off surprise. "Blimey! We're leaking! Quick, someone design a coffer dam to try to cope with it. No, damn, that doesn't work. Let's put a pipe in and suck it out!"

Industry has got to learn to think ahead, and it will only do that if it learns some painful lessons. I like anyone who smiles a lot, and Richard Branson has a ready smile. I believe he has a genuine if rudimentary concern about the environment, but he is mad to expect any compensation for the no-fly rule.  "Lord" Adonis, the Labour transport man, said at the height of his powers that he would be inclined to compensate. Let's hope this is one Labour spending decision that falls to the cutting room floor. It will be a test of the new Government's commitment to fiscal prudence to see whether they can resist the temptation to rob from the poor and give to the Rich.


Unknown said...

Indeed! He and the rest of the polluters can wrap the planes up, moth ball them in hangers and never let them out again! What a cheek!

DocRichard said...

Interesting times for airlines. Their finances are not a lot healthier than the UK, and this dust, + the strike, is going to make BA shares look a bit wobbly.