Volcanic ash – still a very real threat

17 October 2016

In 2010 volcanic ash from the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull caused chaos across Europe. One year later, ash from Grimsvötn again disrupted air traffic, however to a much lesser extent. Earlier this year, the eruption of Mount Rinjani in Indonesia resulted in cancelled and diverted flights.

Regular ICAO volcanic ash exercises are organised to ensure that aviation and ATM are ready for another major eruption. One such exercise took place on 11-12 October, based on an eruption of Bárðarbunga in Iceland. Led by the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre London and strongly supported by EUROCONTROL/Network Manager, the exercise “VOLCEX 16” involved approximately 40 aircraft operators and over 20 air navigation service providers, from Iceland to Russia.

In addition, the Aircraft Operator Crisis Coordination Cell and the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) exercised their preparedness for such an event. The Network Manager hosted six teleconferences during the event, several of which had over 50 participants.

Following the Eyjafjallajökull crisis Europe has made significant effort and investment to improve readiness for another event, with better detection and measuring systems (such as LIDAR) and tools developed in support of flight planning (such as EVITA). In addition, EACCC strongly promoted implementation of the Safety Risk Assessment approach, which allows airlines to make flight planning decisions in accordance with their company policy as agreed by their national supervisory authorities.

This means that airspace is much less likely to be formally closed, as happened in 2010. However, ash represents a very real danger for aircraft and could well cause extensive cancellations, diversions and delays. Ken Thomas, the Head of Network Operations Management Coordination at EUROCONTROL/Network Manager, commented “These exercises are essential for making sure we are ready for another eruption. They are vital for minimising the disruption resulting from another dangerous ash plume”.

Another participant in the exercise, Carlo Verelst of IATA is part of the Aircraft Operator Liaison Cell based at EUROCONTROL/Network Manager, which noted “Together, with the Network Manager, since 2010 there has been significant progress in the European region on volcanic ash contingency planning. All stakeholders must continue to work collaboratively on a full harmonisation of the operational procedures both within Europe and beyond. In this context, the ICAO VOLCEX exercises offer an excellent opportunity for airlines to test these procedures and to be fully prepared in case of future eruptions”.

Volcanic ash exercise

A chart showing the extent of the fictional ash plume towards the end of the exercise, courtesy of the London VAAC

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