Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Confident About Ash. Just like the Tobacco Industry

So the big bullies (BA) threw a few jets out of the pram last night.  Lord Adonis, CAA and NATS appear to have buckled - though it's hardly surprising with the relationship which government has with aviation in this country.  The CAA's overstatement that they are 'independent' smacked of an overcompensation to encourage the public to believe they really are.

In what appears to have been a cornering of the 'experts' who had imposed the flight ban over the UK for safety reasons, the big aviation bullies otherwise known as 'profit before people' appear to have forced them to change their minds and forget about how volcanic dust and airplanes just don't go together. It is felt that the risks that are being passed to technology and the government, and of course no doubt the taxpayer are quite astounding.

The denial by the airline operators and their organisations that volcanic dust isn't really anything big at all made it interesting to read in Business Week alongside the recommendation by the aircraft makers that "The two big engine makers, General Electric Co. and Pratt & Whitney, said Tuesday they were advising airlines to avoid volcanic ash, and to inspect engines that may have encountered it accidentally."

But fear not airline companies: those whom subscribe to the Association of European Airlines will be overjoyed to hear that David Henderson, like much of the aviation industry tends to do, has cherry picked his stand point on this one: "David Henderson, spokesman for the Association of European Airlines. He said airlines did not expect that they would have to increase the tempo of regular engine checks".

"As far as airlines are concerned, they are confident that their established, regular maintenance inspections are perfectly adequate to detect the effects of ash," Henderson said.  

It's strange, from our experience aviation is very happy to quote the airline makers evidence and recommendations on other issues to get what they want: but Mr Henderson has clearly rejected something which might cost more money, even if it did make crew, passengers and those of us on the ground more confident about flights operating near/in volcanic dust.

However it appears that the confidence that Mr Henderson has in 'business as usual' in an exceptional environment is not shared by all in the aviation industry. As reported by Reuters:

Airlines say some 40 test flights over the weekend showed little risk, but experts say the dispersal of the ash appears to be far from uniform. That means patches of relatively dense ash may be scattered all over Europe, with potentially disastrous consequences.

"Since forward-looking weather radar and other sensor systems aboard modern aircraft cannot see this stuff, the very real possibility exists that a passenger jet could fly into one of these high concentration pockets and suffer serious damage," said aviation consultant Chris Yates.

The ICAO regulation that has prompted this widespread grounding is from experience gained from over 80 incidents between 1980 and 2000 and computer modelling (or) best guestimate," said aviation consultant Chris Yates. "The airline industry will know this very well and are clearly making the argument that we are being over cautious."

"Once the existence (of the) cloud was known, just one incident of major engine failure, let alone an accident caused by the ash, would have left the airlines and aviation regulators with a heavy responsibility as well as a legacy of distrust amongst the public, possibly for years to come," said Nick Pidgeon, professor of psychology at Cardiff University.

"Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the cautionary approach to risk has been adopted." 

We wonder what Nick Pidgeon now thinks of the lifting of the 'cautionary approach to risk'?

You may also wish to read more about why airlines have resisted setting safe dust levels in the past in an article in todays The Guardian.  Money rules.