Volcanic ash disruptions force EU to speed up work on better air traffic control system

By Slobodan Lekic, AP
Friday, April 23, 2010

Volcano forces EU to improve air traffic control

BRUSSELS — The European Union speeded up a sweeping reform of its air control management system Friday, responding to the crisis that turned much of the continent into a no-fly zone after a volcanic eruption in Iceland.

“The worst is now over, but there is a huge amount of work to be done to deal with crisis management,” said EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas.

Europe’s airspace on Friday was almost completely free of any remnants of the volcanic ash cloud that caused massive disruptions during the past week. Eurocontrol, the air traffic agency, said the ash cloud was restricted to an area between Iceland and the northwestern tip of Scotland, where the small airports at Kirkwall, Wick, Inverness and Stornoway were closed.

But for the first time since the April 14 eruption, Iceland’s major international airport was closed after shifting winds blew the ash cloud toward the capital of Reykjavik, west of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Trans-Atlantic flights on Icelandair that usually stop in Iceland were being rerouted through Glasgow in Scotland.

Flights across the rest of Europe were expected to proceed normally, said Eurocontrol spokeswoman Kyla Evans. About 29,000 flights were scheduled.

Planes flying between the United States and Europe were given flight paths far above the previous area of the ash cloud, flying at over 30,000 feet (9,000 meters).

Britain’s Royal Air Force said it hoped to resume training flights on Typhoon military fighter jets Friday after grounding them for inspection Thursday when ash was found in an engine.

A week of airspace closures caused by the ash threat to planes created the worst breakdown in civil aviation in Europe since World War II. More than 100,000 flights were canceled and airlines are on track to lose over $2 billion.

Speaking to reporters, Kallas said this made it necessary to speed up implementation of the “Single European Sky” project, reforms to streamline the way air traffic management has been conducted in Europe since World War II.

The EU has 27 national air traffic control networks, 60 air traffic centers and hundreds of approach centers and towers. In contrast, the United States manages twice the number of flights for a similar cost using only about 20 control centers.

The EU program was to have begun in 2012, but Kallas said the latest crisis showed that “we cannot afford to wait that long.”

“The absence of a single European regulator for air traffic control made it very difficult to respond to this crisis. We needed a fast, coordinated European response …. instead we had a fragmented patchwork of 27 national airspaces,” Kallas said.

“Without a central regulator Europe was operating with one hand tied behind its back,” he said.

A seamless EU air navigation system would straighten out Europe’s zigzag air routes to reduce fuel burn, and beef up the role of the European Air Safety Agency that now deals largely with planes’ airworthiness. It would enable a single command center to divert traffic and to provide detailed data to national air traffic centers.

Historically, the key problem in crafting a seamless EU air traffic network has been that for security reasons, EU governments want to retain full sovereignty over their airspace. Some employees, like French air traffic controllers, also fear salary cuts and job losses, and have gone on strike over the issue.

The EU says it is not asking nations to shed their sovereignty, but it argues that a single EU airspace will soften the chaos created by uncoordinated decisions in shutting down national airspaces, as happened in the past week.

Associated Press correspondents Robert Wielaard in Brussels and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.

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