The week-long closing of European airspace due to ash from Iceland's erupting volcano was very likely unnecessary beyond the first two days, a number of experts told the Atlantic Conference on Eyjafjallajokull and Aviation meeting at Keflavic Airport in Iceland this week.
Dr. Ulrich Schumann, director of the German Aerospace Center Institute of Atmospheric Physics (DLR), said, "On April 16th and 17th the ash cloud was clearly visible, but probably by Sunday was gone." Dr. Schumann flew a number of test flights to gather data on the ash cloud and concluded that concentrations were mostly below levels that would threaten safe flights.
"The closures were disproportionate to the actual safety risk; disruptive followed by chaos and exposed weaknesses in decision making," said Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus, Secretary General of Association of European Airlines. "Political safety exulted over aviation and consumer safety."
That it was a political decision to close European airspace, grounding 100,000 flights and affecting 10 million passengers, was disputed by by others at the conference, including Daniel Calleja-Crespo, Director of Air Transport for the European Commission.
Daniel Calleja-Crespo European Commission (left) with Thorgeir Palsson U of Reykjavik
"Weather concerns indicated the situation was there to stay," Calleja said, insisting during this unprecedented situation, "safety had to be preserved."
The 280 conference attendees work in aviation, science, geology, meteorology and vulcanology, and have an important perspective on the ash crisis. But they remain divided over how it was handled and what should be done in the the future. One point was incontestable: The economic impact was nightmarish.
Lipman's use of the word "tourism" goes far beyond sunny beaches and umbrella drinks. "Tourism implies all the economic activity that results" when people do anything, anywhere away from where they live. Lipman said the dollars lost during that week in April is estimated at $5 billion.
"This is what happens when airlines and regulators haven't got their act together," Lipman said, and he urged everyone there to "look outside your silo."
Getting outside the "silos" will be challenging. Sides are already hunkered down.
In the future, airlines want the right to make their own fly/no fly decision. Tom Hendricks of the Air Transport Association told me in an earlier post that airlines are in the best position to judge when it is safe to fly. But over the past few days a number of people told me confidentially that idea is a non-starter. Regulators are not going to cede their safety oversight responsibility.
Eyjafjallajokull as seen from the air on September 14, 2010
Before the end of the conference Thursday, Jorg Handwerg from the German Air Line Pilots' Association in Frankfurt said he was worried that if the decision to fly was ultimately left to airlines, pilots might feel pressured to fly.
"We're not willing to take all the risks on our shoulders or to fight with employers because we're not willing to fly. The pilot is responsible so there must be a limit as to what flights you are allowed to take. Making that decision is the role of the regulator,"
This stalemate should not overshadow the progress that was seen this week. The world's most experienced scientists and volcano experts are focusing on Eyjafjallajokull and Katla, Iceland's other, larger, active volcano. And while trying to predict the route volcanic ash will travel remains frustratingly difficult, the global aviation community is listening -- big time -- to what they have to say. More about that in a future post.