8 Dec 2011

The end of volcanic ash cloud travel chaos?

Remember the Icelandic ash cloud, which grounded thousands of flights last year? Scientists say they have found a way round it – Channel 4 News checks it out at 12,000 feet.


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The plane that could fix the ash cloud problem? (videograb)

Tests over Etna so far show they are doing a good job of identifying ash in the atmosphere. Add in some fancy maths based on the amount of ash emitted by an erupting volcano, and easyJet’s scientists say the system can produce models showing accurately where the ash is and how thick.

Of course this is just a few thousand feet up on a plane flying only 120mph. To work commercially, the technology will have to be transplanted to jet planes – which fly far higher and faster. Tests with plane-maker Airbus are expected to begin next year.

But the scientists are optimistic it will work at these higher stresses. And when it does it should – they claim – be able to detect ash clouds up 100 kilometres away and between 5 and 50 thousand feet.

The real test could come soon. An eruption from the Icelandic volcano of Katla is about 50 years overdue.

EasyJet insist that it is funding the project for the good of the aviation industry and if other competitors like Ryanair benefit from reduced closures too, then so be it. But its bosses do concede that they want to recoup their costs – so far £100,000s – and the technology could be a money spinner.

If it passes its field trials and is approved by the European Aviation Safety Agency then the company will be able to sell it to other airlines. Flying with the equipment fitted would allow pilots to reduce safety margins around dangerous ash (reducing fuel costs). It would also mean they could avoid even lower, safe concentrations, which nonetheless can cause expensive wear and tear to engines.

Etna is relatively stable at the moment, which has ironically left the scientists hoping for a few minor eruptions to help fine tune their kit.

But the real test could come soon. An eruption from the Icelandic volcano of Katla is about 50 years overdue and recently there have been signs it is getting frisky. If that goes, it will dwarf the Eyjafjallajökull and Grimsvotn blowouts.

The airlines know they will need all the kit they got to avoid not just the ash but another lockdown of airspace by understandably safety-conscious aviation authorities.