Airlines are questioning the draconian flight restrictions put in place in response to the dust cloud created by the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland.
Flight Restrictions are due to be lifted in the north of England and Scotland from 7am on Tuesday morning. This affects airports north of a line between Teesside and Blackpool.
The National Air Traffic Service also said that it was possible that airports in the south could be opened later on Tuesday if the contaminated area continued to move south.
However, the methodology applied by the authorities in Europe has been challenged by the airlines. The International Air Transport Association called for a re-think of the decision-making process.
“We are far enough into this crisis to express our dissatisfaction on how governments have managed it-with no risk assessment, no consultation, no co-ordination, and no leadership. This crisis is costing airlines at least $200 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.
Over the weekend, a British Airways Boeing 747 with chief executive Willie Walsh aboard, completed a 2 hour 46 minute flight. BA said the conditions were perfect and the aircraft encountered no difficulties.
It seems likely that air cargo rates will go up following the disruption.
Freight forwarder Panalpina has warned customers that as soon as flight operations are back to normal, “additional capacity at higher cost will be required to clear backlog. Consequently airlines are implementing a rate increase with immediate effect and until further notice. Although Panalpina is working on optimising procurement in the customers’ interest, the present situation leaves no alternative but to pass on this rate increase.”
Kuehne + Nagel also warned customers: “The likely consequence could be a further increase in freight costs, in a market already short on capacity.”
Fresh fruit and flowers have already been affected by the disruption to air cargo operations. The BBC has reported that warehouses at Nairobi airport were full.
Supply chain consultant Alan Braithwaite, chairman of LCP Consulting, said: “The disruption to UK and EU aviation from the Icelandic dust cloud will lead to shortages of product quite quickly for categories like fresh fruit and flowers and then into the pharmaceuticals and high tech areas based on limited stock in the chain. If this disruption lasts for another four or five days then there will be selective shortages.
“The air freight sector, which is just starting to bounce back from a crippling recession, will undoubtedly experience more losses. There have been recent bankruptcies so if this disruption lasts it will be seriously detrimental to the air freight sector.”
Christopher Snelling, The Freight Transport Association’s head of global supply chain policy, said: “With imports of some fruit and vegetables grounded, certain fresh produce, such as exotic fruits and fresh flowers, are starting to become noticeable by their absence from our supermarket shelves.
“Even if British airspace opened up immediately, it would take a fortnight to clear the backlog of air freight destined for the UK, so we already face an unprecedented logistical challenge. Of course, for fresh produce, this could simply be too long a wait and some will simply have to be destroyed.
“Producers in Africa are being particularly badly hit – in some areas of the continent 90 per cent of fruit, flowers and vegetable exports to Europe are delivered by air. With over one million African farmers reliant on the UK consumption of their fruit and vegetables, UK holidaymakers are not the only ones watching the skies.”
IATA criticised Europe’s 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 Organisation (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.