April 19 - The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has sharply criticised European governments for their lack of leadership in handling airspace restrictions in light of the Icelandic volcano eruption and urged a re-think of the decision-making
"We are far enough into this crisis to express our dissatisfaction on how governments have managed it - with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership. This crisis is costing airlines at least USD200 million a day in lost revenues and the European economy is suffering billions of dollars in lost business. In the face of such dire economic consequences, it is incredible that Europe's transport ministers have taken five days to organise a teleconference," said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA's director general and CEO.
"Governments must place greater urgency and focus on how and when we can safely re-open Europe's skies. This means decisions based on risk-management, facts and utilising operational procedures that maintain safety," said Bisignani.
IATA criticised Europe's unique methodology of closing airspace based on theoretical modeling of the ash cloud. "This means that governments have not taken their responsibility to make clear decisions based on facts. Instead, it has been the air navigation service providers who announced that they would not provide service. And these decisions have been taken without adequately consulting the airlines. This is not an acceptable system particularly when the consequences for safety and the economy are so large," said Bisignani.
"Safety is our top priority. Airlines will not fly if it is not safe. I have consulted our member airlines that normally operate in the affected airspace. They report missed opportunities to fly safely. The European system results in blanket closures of airspace. I challenge governments to agree on ways to flexibly re-open airspace. Risk assessments should be able to help us re-open certain corridors, if not entire airspaces," said Bisignani.
To assist governments in assessing risk, airlines have conducted successful test flights in several European countries. The results have not shown any irregularities or safety issues. Airlines are also exploring various operational measures to maintain safe operations. These include day flights, restrictions to specific flight corridors, special climb and descent procedures, and more frequent detailed boroscopic engine inspections to detect damage.
The scale of airspace closures currently seen in Europe is unprecedented. "We have seen volcanic activity in many parts of the world but rarely has it resulted in airspace closures - and never at this scale. When Mount St. Helens erupted in the US in 1980, we did not see large scale disruptions, because the decisions to open or close airspace were risk managed with no compromise on safety," said Bisignani, who urged Eurocontrol to establish a volcano contingency centre capable of making coordinated decisions.
Bisignani called for an urgent meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the specialized agency of the UN, to define government responsibility for the decisions to open or close airspace in a coordinated and effective way based on real data and special operating procedures.