Riding The Perfect Storm

A volcanic ash cloud, heavy snow and industrial action by air traffic controllers formed a perfect storm in 2010 that stopped the anticipated recovery of Europe’s airlines in its tracks. Aimée Turner examines how the industry went about improving network recovery to avoid airspace and airport closure in future

The supreme irony of the Icelandic volcano eruption that grounded thousands of flights, nearly put some airlines out of business, and left millions of passengers stranded was that it actually did wonders for the country’s tourism industry.

As lava cooled around the petulant Eyjafjallajokull, tourists began to flock to the island, creating a spike in volcano tours. World air travel did not fare so well, however.

The economic impact of the volcanic ash from Eyjafjallajokull was pegged by the OECD and the World Tourism Organisation of the United Nations at a hefty €1.7 billion with a similar amount thought to have been lost in tourism revenues.

Volcanic ash procedure activated 14 April European Union states move to close access to airspace Eurocontrol’s Central Flow Management Unit implements and coordinates closures European Commission and Eurocontrol convene operational and policy talks Similar discussions are held at national level New thresholds of penetration of contaminated airspace agreed 19 April Airspace re-opens 21 April

2010 Timeline: The volcanic ash procedure was activated on 14 April, 2010 which saw European Union member states move to close access to airspace. Eurocontrol’s Central Flow Management Unit implemented and coordinated the airspace closures. The European Commission and Eurocontrol then convened operational and policy talks while similar discussions were held at national level. New thresholds of penetration of contaminated airspace were finally agreed on 19 April. Airspace was re-opened on 21 April

European airlines took the full force during the week of the ash cloud disruption. The Association of European Airlines which represents Europe’s most important network carriers, documented the sorry fall-out of 2010, thwarting hopes of a recovery after the pummelling the airline industry took throughout 2009.

“The figures were of course severely distorted by the effects of external shocks, most notably the airspace closures associated with the Icelandic volcanic eruptions in April and May,” said the AEA in its yearly state-of-the-industry report.

Figures from European air navigation safety organisation Eurocontrol chronicle the heavy toll: nearly 160,000 flights were cancelled between January and November, including 100,000 due to the volcano with the remaining cancellations representing a 150% increase from 2009.

Brian Flynn, the then head of network operations at Eurocontrol, explains that at its worse, the Icelandic volcano succeeded in shutting down the airspace over 75% of the landmass of Europe with eastbound traffic from the North Atlantic forced ever southwards in an effort to enter European airspace.

“All the benefits of initial growth coming out of recession were lost in Europe. We probably ended up in 2010 with only 1% growth in air traffic when our original projections were for between 2-3%,” said Flynn. “In 2007, delays generated €1.3 billion of costs to the airlines. That got a lot worse in 2010 at nearer €2 billion. And that’s without starting to quantify the direct and indirect costs to airports.”

Ash cloud concentration was not uniform however and large swathes of southern Europe were not as severely affected by ash cloud contamination as her more northern neighbours. And yet the rules laid down by global aviation’s standard-setting body ICAO were the only guide that national authorities had to go on – and that was very strictly interpreted by the authorities. “It was a risk aversion rather than a risk management strategy,” admits Eurocontrol’s Flynn. “Because we had no risk strategy it took us five days to move to an acceptable risk level”

Airlines rounded on the authorities for what they judged to be poor decision-making on the basis of excessively conservative ash concentration forecasts, claiming that there was no need to adopt such the draconian measures as wholesale airspace closure.

Although the crisis was initially managed on a no-risk total closure strategy, a small number of aircraft equipped to fly through volcanic ash clouds were dispatched and when they did penetrate these areas they found high concentration levels – but only in pockets. At the same time, a number of airlines carried out test flights using cargo aircraft, supplying vital extra information about concentration levels, on the basis of which a fresh risk assessment framework could be prepared.

Because airborne weather radar does not detect volcanic ash, and low concentrations may not be detected, ICAO says pilots should look out for:       Odour: When encountering a volcanic ash cloud, flight crews usually notice a smoky or acrid odour that can smell like electrical smoke, burned dust, or sulphur     Static discharges: An electrostatic phenomenon similar to St. Elmo’s fire or glow can occur. In these instances, blue-coloured sparks can appear to flow up the outside of the windshield or a white glow at the leading edges of the wings or at the front of the engine inlets     Changing engine conditions: Surging, torching from the tailpipe and flameouts can occur; engine temperatures can change unexpectedly and a white glow can appear at the engine inlet     Engine restarts: Engines may accelerate to idle very slowly, especially at high altitudes and could result in inability to maintain altitude or Mach number     Haze: Most flight crews, as well as cabin crew or passengers, see a haze develop within the aircraft; dust can settle on surfaces     Airspeed: If volcanic ash fouls the pitot tubes, the indicated airspeed can decrease or fluctuate erratically, with associated effects on aircraft systems     Pressurization: Cabin pressure can change, including possible loss of cabin pressurization     Landing lights: Can cast sharp distinct shadows     Cockpit windows: Possible loss of visibility due to windows becoming cracked or discoloured due to the sandblast effect of the volcanic ash.

Because airborne weather radar does not detect volcanic ash, and low concentrations may not be detected, ICAO says pilots should look out for:
Odour: When encountering a volcanic ash cloud, flight crews usually notice a smoky or acrid odour that can smell like electrical smoke, burned dust, or sulphur
Static discharges: An electrostatic phenomenon similar to St. Elmo’s fire or glow can occur. In these instances, blue-coloured sparks can appear to flow up the outside of the windshield or a white glow at the leading edges of the wings or at the front of the engine inlets
Changing engine conditions: Surging, torching from the tailpipe and flameouts can occur; engine temperatures can change unexpectedly and a white glow can appear at the engine inlet
Engine restarts: Engines may accelerate to idle very slowly, especially at high altitudes and could result in inability to maintain altitude or Mach number
Haze: Most flight crews, as well as cabin crew or passengers, see a haze develop within the aircraft; dust can settle on surfaces
Airspeed: If volcanic ash fouls the pitot tubes, the indicated airspeed can decrease or fluctuate erratically, with associated effects on aircraft systems
Pressurization: Cabin pressure can change, including possible loss of cabin pressurization
Landing lights: Can cast sharp distinct shadows
Cockpit windows: Possible loss of visibility due to windows becoming cracked or discoloured due to the sandblast effect of the volcanic ash.

Airframe and engine manufacturers, aviation safety regulators, airlines, meteorological authorities and research communities came together and introduced experimental thresholds of volcanic ash concentrations which permitted, subject to appropriate precautionary maintenance, the resumption of operations in some areas contaminated by volcanic ash.

The deal carved up the airspace into four different risk classifications:

  • A white zone where normal flight operations apply
  • A red zone – Enhanced Procedures Zone B – in which some volcanic ash may be encountered, but in which EASA considers that flights can take place.
  • A grey zone – Enhanced Procedures Zone A – in which EASA recommends two approaches that allow flights under certain conditions.
  • A black zone (No Fly) in which EASA recommends banning flights because predicted ash concentrations exceed acceptable engine manufacturer tolerance levels.

“The main evolution lies with a greater level of granularity in determining the Enhanced Procedures Zone, thereby establishing the grey zone. This will allow member states greater flexibility in deciding how to manage their airspace, allowing for less flight disruption while still ensuring safety,” said Eurocontrol at the time.

In retrospect, Flynn believes that had the more “granular” approach been applied at the time of the crisis, only 35% of flights would have been lost rather than the 54%.

Flynn adds that the crisis highlighted the principal weakness of the air traffic system in that decisions are invariably taken at local, national and regional level – and yet it essentially is a global system where decisions taken at any level have a knock-on effect. “The question remains, because aviation is a global industry, if one state has authorised operations for certain sorts of aircraft to operate, does that apply across Europe and furthermore, does that apply across the global region?”

Indeed, even the response to the volcanic ash situation among European states proved confusing at the time with some moving to open their airspace and certain routes early and determining their own rules of what constituted acceptable risk.

While airlines should always follow recommended practice issued by aircraft and engine makers, these general ICAO rules should apply:     Make a 180° turn, generally the shortest route out of the cloud     Decrease thrust if conditions permit. High thrust and hence turbine temperatures increases the risk of volcanic particles melting and causing build-ups in the turbine area     Don crew oxygen masks (100%)     Report to ATC. Any observation of volcanic activity or volcanic cloud encounter should be reported immediately to ATC using the VAR/AIREP procedures and subsequently by filing the more detailed part of the VAR     Increase bleed demand, e.g. select wing and engine anti-ice ON. This increases the surge margins and reduces the likelihood of a flameout     Start the APU, providing an additional generator in case of a flameout     Monitor engine parameters and airspeed indications. The latter may be rendered unreliable by ash. Be prepared to use the unreliable airspeed indication drills     File an ASR and make a technical log entry.

While airlines should always follow recommended practice issued by aircraft and engine makers, these general ICAO rules should apply:
Make a 180° turn, generally the shortest route out of the cloud
Decrease thrust if conditions permit. High thrust and hence turbine temperatures increases the risk of volcanic particles melting and causing build-ups in the turbine area
Don crew oxygen masks (100%)
Report to ATC. Any observation of volcanic activity or volcanic cloud encounter should be reported immediately to ATC using the VAR/AIREP procedures and subsequently by filing the more detailed part of the VAR
Increase bleed demand, e.g. select wing and engine anti-ice ON. This increases the surge margins and reduces the likelihood of a flameout
Start the APU, providing an additional generator in case of a flameout
Monitor engine parameters and airspeed indications. The latter may be rendered unreliable by ash. Be prepared to use the unreliable airspeed indication drills
File an official safety report and make a technical log entry.

Add to that the fact that crises always throw up unique challenges which contingency planners just cannot foresee, and the decision over who exactly should be included in the chain of command adds further confusion to the mix.

Flynn is honest about the state in which European authorities found themselves. “The mechanisms to convene operational, policy and regulatory and political decision-makers needed to be ‘invented’. Uncertainty prevailed for several days with questions marks over who decides and certainly the decision criteria.”

Procedures and tools for managing such events had frankly been found wanting so post-Eyafjallajokull Eurocontrol set about establishing an effective crisis co-ordination infrastructure. That meant the founding of the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) to manage future situations affecting aviation in Europe. Activated when the normal operations environment is “exceeded”.

One of its importance tasks was to conduct overall coordination and control of all actions in any aviation crisis, collect all relevant information available during its evolution such as any meteorological, flight, airspace data, etc, and investigate relevant aspects, such as predictions on safety, impact, and event duration. Equally important, is its role in coordinating the work of ATM partners globally. Full scale simulation exercise are now routinely conducted to check and refine those EACCC procedures centring on a putative eruption of a volcano withn European airspace.

“Its mandate however does not extend to outside the European area so a flight is quite entitled to set off from Abu Dhabi, say, and will not receive a message telling that flight that it should not take off. There is no legal mandate to do that even though part of the airspace may be closed,” Flynn points out.

“Of course, NOTAMS will be issued by the state but there are so many NOTAMS, thousands issued each day. How is every airline supposed to ingest every single NOTAM issued and to spot the one that affects that one particular flight?” asks Flynn.

At ICAO level there has also been activity. Little progress on determining thresholds of acceptable levels of ash concentration had been made over the last 20 years and it took the Eyafjallajokull ash cloud to push the issue up the agenda covering as it did such large areas of high-density air traffic airspace.

ICAO’s International Volcanic Ash Task Force (IVATF) which was convened in July 2010 as a response to Eyafjallajokull released new draft rules that December which outlined its thinking in risk assessment guidance in flight operations management as well as best practice procedures of state aviation authorities.

Work here was focussed on new standards based on detection, thresholds and how contamination evolves, new ATM procedures and functions governing control flow in a future crisis situation. Airlines were also invited to exchange views on future risk assessment methodologies for natural hazards in general, and volcanic eruptions in particular.

At that point it looked likely that national aviation authorities would  require all operators to observe a risk assessment framework that provides for an auditable and consistent method to make good safety decisions when contemplating flight close to, or into, airspace or aerodromes with known or forecast ash cloud contamination. And, indeed, that was the case with the eventual development of the first ever volcanic ash manual.

Manual

Entitled Flight Safety and Volcanic Ash (Doc 9974), the manual provides guidance which states may recommend to airlines when there is forecast volcanic ash contamination, placing the responsibility for such operations on the operator, under the oversight of the state regulatory authority.

It will always therefore remain at the discretion of the pilot to decide whether or not to handle the risk based on safety risk assessment drawn up by his airline employer.

This discretionary approach is significant. Post-Eyafjallajokull, although there was acknowledgement that a risk assessment framework should be embedded into an airline’s approved procedures, shifting decision making to the airlines concerned some pilots organizations which feared that pilots could come under pressure to fly against their better judgement.

EVITA, or the European Crisis Visualisation Interactive Tool for ATFCM is being developed by Eurocontrol to become the principal communications channel for airlines operating in Europe during crisis situations which affect a significant amount of airspace during longer periods of time. Essentially, it brings together volcanic ash concentration data (provided by the VAACs in London and Toulouse) and Danger Areas declared via NOTAM by national aviation authorities in addition to the standard functionality of Eurocontrol’s existing Network Operations Portal website produced by its Central Flow Management Unit. “It is a tool to support decision-making of airlines, state regulators, ANSPs etc,” says Eurocontrol’s Zarko Sivcev who helped to develop EVITA. “It should provide indications of which sectors and aerodromes are impacted by volcanic ash for national aviation authorities and ANSPs. Airlines will further be able to identify and plot their flights, which are likely to be impacted by volcanic ash .” The tool’s use is not solely restricted to ash contamination but could equally be applied to crises involving nuclear emergency, pandemics and security alarms, indeed anything that has an adverse impact on the airspace. “It should serve as a ‘one stop shop’, and therefore should reduce the risk of information overload,” says Sivcev. In its current form it delivers a graphic depiction of how airspace is currently affected as well as offering how airspace will likely be affected in future as the crisis evolves. The tool will also be developed further to display data at the rate it is received and will also have enhanced dynamic features allowing the user to zoom and choose different overlays as well as produce static snap shot of tailor made chart. EVITA will further support the depiction of impacted areas and provide coordinates and could also be tailored to be airline-specific, detailing which of the operator’s flights are impacted, by which ash concentration and give estimates of the duration.

EVITA, or the European Crisis Visualisation Interactive Tool for ATFCM is being developed by Eurocontrol to become the principal communications channel for airlines operating in Europe during crisis situations which affect a significant amount of airspace during longer periods of time.
Essentially, it brings together volcanic ash concentration data (provided by the volcanic activity alert centres in London and Toulouse) and Danger Areas declared via NOTAM by national aviation authorities in addition to the standard functionality of Eurocontrol’s existing Network Operations Portal website produced by its Central Flow Management Unit.
“It is a tool to support decision-making of airlines, state regulators, ANSPs etc,” says Eurocontrol’s Zarko Sivcev who helped to develop EVITA. “It should provide indications of which sectors and aerodromes are impacted by volcanic ash for national aviation authorities and ANSPs. Airlines will further be able to identify and plot their flights, which are likely to be impacted by volcanic ash .”
The tool’s use is not solely restricted to ash contamination but could equally be applied to crises involving nuclear emergency, pandemics and security alarms, indeed anything that has an adverse impact on the airspace.
“It should serve as a ‘one stop shop’, and therefore should reduce the risk of information overload,” says Sivcev.
In its current form it delivers a graphic depiction of how airspace is currently affected as well as offering how airspace will likely be affected in future as the crisis evolves. The tool will also be developed further to display data at the rate it is received and will also have enhanced dynamic features allowing the user to zoom and choose different overlays as well as produce static snap shot of tailor made chart.
EVITA will further support the depiction of impacted areas and provide coordinates and could also be tailored to be airline-specific, detailing which of the operator’s flights are impacted, by which ash concentration and give estimates of the duration.

Often overlooked is the role that effective communication played in the 2010 volcanic ash episode in alleviating some of the worst albeit avoidable effects of external shocks and this too is where Eurocontrol has applied some effort.

“We cannot prevent crises from natural phenomena but we can be a lot smarter when they happen,” says Flynn.

Eurocontrol has developed a toolset on its Network Operations Portal for all airspace users which depicts any form of airspace closure and calculates the profile of any flights whether or not they will fly into any danger area.

“Aviation is a global activity. We need this sort of activity to be available to all airlines and all ANSPs on a worldwide basis if we are to effectively deal with future crises,” says Flynn. “Data comes into Eurocontrol from the US’s Federal Aviation Administration on all flights over the North American continent and the North Atlantic Ocean. We can see every single flight in Europe with radar pictures refreshing every two minutes throughout Europe. But we have nothing to the east and nothing from the south. So how can we effectively operate a global industry if we do not have continual information sharing?”

Another of the system’s greatest challenges is how to integrate airports into the worldwide network from an information and decision-making perspective? As he points out, a crisis situation such as pandemics, security and severe weather can affect the airport but not the airspace.

“We need to know what are airport information needs and how do they differ from the needs of ANSP and airlines? Who represents the airports, the airport authority, the ATC? An airport is a complex series of partners and how do we share information with all of them,” Flynn asks. “Also, can an airline really be expected to inform all its passengers on events that are way outside its control and are perhaps taking place in another continent? We need global information allied to the needs of all stakeholders.”

The return to normal operations is also an area that should be examined, reckons Flynn, as normal operations need to be resumed gradually. “We need recovery plans but we cannot expect to get out of a crisis situation in a few hours or even a few days and we need to gradually restore network capability.”

“In order to do that, we need a true picture of demand. Today airlines tend to be quite late in updating their flight planning information and any time we have even a small crisis in Europe we find we have a great deal of “false” demand in the system. In other words, aircraft which intended to fly and filed a flight plan never cancelled that plan and did not inform the network about it.”

Eyjafjallajokull’s toll on European traffic (15–21 April, 2010)     Unprecedented disruption with 1% of annual traffic lost     54% of flights are lost overall     70% of flights are lost at worst hit EU airports,     Less affected EU airports still lose 23% of flights     Several airlines lose more than 80% of scheduled traffic

Eyjafjallajokull’s toll on European traffic Unprecedented disruption with 1% of annual traffic lost
54% of flights are lost overall
70% of flights are lost at worst hit EU airports,
Less affected EU airports still lose 23% of flights
Several airlines lose more than 80% of scheduled traffic

“We also need priority rules to recover from crisis situations. The airspace cannot just be opened up on a first-come first-served basis because that only prolongs the disruption.”

Intermodal forms of transport are one alternative that should come into play especially in a continent where city pairs are often quite close. Inter-airline co-operation is another.

“This begs the questions, what form of solutions could we use to move passengers from outside the European Union airspace. A great number of passengers were stuck for weeks due to the ash cloud and did not get to their destination for days until their airlines resumed normal operations,” says Flynn.

“When the system gets up and running it is overloaded so we have to take precautions and those should include a discussion of what the priorities are. Which flights should start first? Should they be transatlantic flights for their economic benefit impact, short haul or holiday flights? Priorities need to protect the system and to explore all the opportunities that are there.”

Indeed, the European Commission has quite wide powers in terms of transport policy to effect this sort of prioritisation.

Flynn believes that in terms of information needs each ANSP is not only beholden to each other but accountable to the world outside their own airspace boundaries. “What did we learn? We learned that clear decision-making criteria were essential and that the actors involved in that needed to be clearly identified. That went equally for the policy as it did at operational level. We also learned that the information requirements of the regulatory authorities, of the ANSPs, of the airlines, of the airports and even the passengers also urgently needs to take place on a global level.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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