24 May 2011

Volcanic ash cloud from Iceland hits Britain

As airlines across Britain cancel flights as the ash cloud hits, the British Air Transport Association tells Channel 4 News a crisis of last year’s magnitude would “devastate the industry”.

A small plane flies past a smoke plume from the eruption of the Grimsvotn volcano in southeastern Iceland (Reuters)

A high density ash cloud from Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano has hit parts of Scotland, causing all flights in the country to be cancelled.

Air traffic control company Nats said “an area of volcanic ash” was forecast to affect some parts of the UK between 1pm and 7pm today, meaning services from Londonderry, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Prestwick, Newcastle, Carlisle, Durham Tees Valley and Cumbernauld airports may be affected.

European air traffic controllers said 252 flights had been cancelled so far.

The UK’s air safety regulator the Civil Aviation Authority say airlines can fly through low densities of ash but must put forward a safety case to the CAA showing they have assessed whether the aircraft will be able to cope.

A CAA spokesman said the current cloud could “potentially” cause serious disruption as charts showed that the ash density below 35,000ft had reached the highest density level at more than 4,000 microgrammes per cubic metre.

“No UK airline has applied to fly in high-density ash, but a number have applied for, and been given, permission for flying in medium ash,” it said.

It is feared sand particles in the ash will melt inside an aeroplane’s turbines and form glass, that can shut them down in mid-flight.

Click on the image to see more photos from Iceland

Test flight

Ryanair have challenged a ruling that planes in Scotland should be grounded and launched their own test flight over Scotland. Ryanair said the aeroplane was “completely unaffected” by the ash, and have questioned the accuracy of the “red zone” around Scotland.

Chief executive Michael O’Leary said: “We’ve got written confirmation from the engine and our airframe manufacturers that we’re safe to fly even within these red zones.

“And yet yesterday, the combination of bureaucratic incompetence between the Met office, with these nonsensical charts, and the CAA closed the skies over Glasgow.”

The Civil Aviation questioned the accuracy of Ryanair’s test flight, and said the plane didn’t travel through the red zone.

Know your rights
Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which? magazine, has this advice for consumers.

"Travellers should still be prepared for delays and cancellations, but airlines and the CAA do not expect the volcanic ash to cause as much disruption as last year. If you do have a flight booked over the next few days, contact your airline before you go to the airport, and make sure they have your up-to-date contact details.
"If your flight is cancelled or delayed for over five hours, you should be offered a choice of a full refund or transfer to an alternative flight. However, the airlines don't have to compensate passengers for loss of any additional elements to holidays, such as accommodation and car hire. It may be possible to claim for these losses on travel insurance, but passengers will need to check their individual policies, many of which may now have specific exclusions built in."

Economic impact

Simon Buck, the Chief Executive of the British Air Transport Association – the trade association for UK registered airlines – told Channel 4 News a repeat of the 2010 ash crisis would have “devastating consequences” for the industry.

“Last year it cost UK airlines £600 million, for example. But I would stress that we are not expecting such a scenario to unfold this time and we hope the eruption will subside with disruption kept to a minimum,” he said.

But he said that a worst-case scenario of a prolonged grounding would have profound consequences for the industry and for the wider economy.

“The whole of the British economy would grind to a halt, we’d all feel the squeeze, and I think such a crisis helps magnify how important the aviation industry actually is.

Read more from Channel 4 News: why Grimsvotn is not Eyjafjallajokul 

“Last year the Government made it clear that the industry would have to stand on its own two feet. Our passengers are our main priority, but last year cost us an awful lot of money, and many companies paid out more than they anticipated.”

The uncertainty has already had an effect British Airways share prices, which fell 5 per cent on Monday, and were down a further 2.2 per cent at midday after announcing that it would not operate any flights between London and Scotland before 2pm.

Budget airlines fared better, with Ryanair flat and Easyjet down slightly. Yesterday the carriers’ shares dropped 6 per cent and 4.85 per cent respectively.

Last year’s ash crisis cost European airlines over £2.2 billion after the cancellation of more than 100 000 flights.

Changing wind

The Met Office says changing wind patterns make it hard to predict where the ash cloud will spread.

But Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said: “There is some early indication that the scale and power of the eruption might be subsiding a little bit.

“Perhaps it’s a little bit too early to be absolutely sure about that, but clearly that’s the most important thing. If the ash stops belching out of the volcano then, after a few days, the problem will have cleared, so that’s one of the factors.

“The other is the wind speed and direction. At the moment the weather patterns are very volatile which is what is making it quite difficult, unlike last year, to predict where the ash will go.”

He added that the public should be assured that airlines would only operate when it was safe to do so.

The following airlines have announced cancellations:
British Airways
is not operating any flights between London and Scotland until 1400 BST
cancelled flights to and from Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Newcastle as well as flights from Durham Tees Valley Airport
cancelled flights from Glasgow until lunchtime
said it has been advised by the Irish Aviation Authority not to operate flights from Glasgow Prestwick, Edinburgh or Aberdeen until at least 1300 BST on safety grounds, but believed that was no basis for the cancellations
Aer Lingus
cancelled 12 flights to and from Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh
cancelled 11 flights to and from Scotland
said flights to and from Aberdeen were subject to delay but services in and out of Glasgow and Edinburgh were unaffected
38 flights cancelled in Scotland.
Eastern Airways
no services in Scottish flight zone