Volcano Risk

Remarks from Giovanni Bisignani (International Air Transport Association) at the Press Breakfast in Paris

The Volcano

There was one risk that we could not forecast. That is the volcanic eruption which has crippled the aviation sector.  First in Europe, but we saw increasing global implications.  The scale of this crisis is now greater than 9/11 when US air space was closed for three days.  In lost revenue alone, this is costing the industry at least $200 million a day.  On top of that, airlines face added costs of extra fuel for re-routing and passenger care – hotel, food and telephone calls.

For Europe’s carriers – the most seriously impacted – this could not have come at a worse time.  As just mentioned, we already expected the region to have the biggest losses this year.  For each day that planes don’t fly the losses get bigger.  We are now into our fifth day of closed skies.  Let me restate that safety is our number one priority. But it is critical that we place greater urgency and focus on how and when we can safely re-open Europe’s skies.

We are far enough into this crisis to express our dissatisfaction on how governments have managed the crisis:

  • With no risk assessment
  • No consultation
  • No coordination
  • And no leadership

In the face of a crisis that some have estimated has already cost the European economy billions of Euros, it is incredible that it has taken five days for Europe’s transport ministers to organize a conference call.

What must be done?

International guidance is weak. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is the specialized UN agency for aviation. ICAO has guidance on information dissemination but no clear process for opening or closing airspace. Closing airspace should be the responsibility of the national regulator with the support of the air navigation service provider.  They rely on information from meteorological offices and Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers.

Europe has a unique system.  The region’s decisions are based on a theoretical model for how the ash spreads.  This means that governments have not taken their responsibility to make clear decisions based on fact.  Instead, it has been the air navigation service providers who announced that they would not provide service. These decisions have been taken without adequately consulting the operators—the airlines. This is not an acceptable system, particularly when the consequences for safety and the economy are so large.

I emphasize that safety is our top priority. But we must make decisions based on the real situation in the sky, not on theoretical models. The chaos, inconvenience and economic losses are not theoretical. They are enormous and growing. I have consulted our member airlines who normally operate in the affected airspace. They report missed opportunities to fly safely.  One of the problems with the European system is that the situation is seen as black or white. If there is the possibility of ash then the airspace is closed.  And it remains closed until the possibility disappears with no assessment of the risk.

We have seen volcanic activity in many parts of the world but rarely combined with 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.

Today I am calling for urgent action to safely prepare for re-opening airspace based on risk and fact.  I have personally asked ICAO President Kobeh and Secretary General Benjamin to convene an urgent extra-ordinary meeting of the ICAO Council later today. The first purpose would be to define government responsibility for the decisions to open or close airspace in a coordinated and effective way based on fact—not theory.

Airlines have run test flights to assess the situation.  The results have not shown any irregularities and the data is being passed to governments and air navigation service providers to help with their assessment. Governments must also do their own testing. European states must focus on ways to re-open the airspace based on this real data and on appropriate operational procedures to maintain safety.  Such procedures could include special climb and descent procedures, day time flying, restrictions to specific corridors, and more frequent boroscopic inspections of engines.

We must move away from blanket closures and find ways to flexibly open airspace. Risk assessments should be able to help us to re-open certain corridors if not entire airspaces.  I have also urged Eurocontrol to also take this up. I urge them to establish a volcano contingency center capable of making coordinated decisions.  There is a meeting scheduled for this afternoon that I hope will result in a concrete action plan.

Longer-term, I have also asked the ICAO Council to expedite procedures to certify at what levels of ash concentration aircraft can operate safely.  Today there are no standards for ash concentration or particle size that aircraft can safely fly through. The result is zero tolerance. Any forecast ash concentration results in airspace closure. We are calling on aircraft and engine manufacturers to certify levels of ash that are safe.

Summary

1. Safety is our number one priority
2. Governments must reopen airspace based on data that tell us it is safe. If not all airspace, at least some corridors
3. Governments must improve the decision-making process with facts—not theory
4. Governments must communicate better, consulting with airlines and coordinating among stakeholders
5. And longer-term, we must find a way to certify the tolerance of aircraft for flying in these conditions

You might wonder about your own Volcano Risk.  Check out an explanation of what is covered by State Farm.

Finally, I got a question from the press about companies that I knew that had prepared specifically for this event.  One more example of how the press misses the point.  ERM is not about guessing the future correctly.

For something that is as unique as this event, the best any company could have expected to do would have been to anticipated the broad class of events that would cause extended disruptions of flights, tested the impact of such a disruption on their business operations and made decisions about contingency plans that they might have put in place to prepare for such disruptions.

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