EU air safety agency proposes adopting US volcanic ash rules for a much smaller no-fly zone

By Slobodan Lekic, AP
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

EU proposes new rules on avoiding volcanic ash

BRUSSELS — The European air safety agency proposed new procedures Wednesday that would drastically shrink the no-fly zone around volcanic ash particles — a move that should decrease future airspace closures and travel delays.

Daniel Hoeltgen, spokesman for the European aviation safety agency, said the new solution adopts the U.S. practice of imposing a 120-mile (190-kilometer) no-fly buffer zone for all aircraft in the vicinity of any visible ash plume. This no-fly zone is hundreds of miles (kilometers) smaller than the one used now in Europe.

Last month, a large part of European airspace was closed for five days when ash from the Icelandic volcano drifted over northern and western parts of the continent. It forced the cancellation of 100,000 flights, stranded millions of passengers and caused losses of over $2 billion to the airlines.

Many airlines criticized the European airspace closures as an unnecessary overreaction.

Flying directly through the plume of a volcanic eruption can damage jet engines, block a plane’s sensor instruments and cause other damage. But there is scant evidence so far that the abrasive volcanic ash particles can cause damage it they are dispersed by the wind.

Nevertheless, the U.S. and European systems for flying near ash differ fundamentally.

European aviation authorities have three zones — a vast no-fly belt stretching along the entire area where winds have spread the ash, a large additional buffer area where flying is also forbidden, and a clear-air part where aircraft can fly normally.

This method caused the blanket closure of almost all of European airspace when prevailing winds carried the ash from Iceland eastward over the continent in April.

In contrast, in the United States, flying is forbidden only the area where the volcanic plume is densest and in a 120-mile (200-kilometer) buffer zone.

“I can confirm that the agency has been discussing a new solution to the renewed threat of airspace closures due to the volcanic ash cloud,” Hoeltgen said.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the European Commission, airlines and national aviation authorities have been involved in the talks, he said. The change still has to be approved by the EU 27 national aviation regulators and the European Commission.

The Association of European Airlines — which earlier denounced Europe’s previous three-zone method as being based on faulty methodology — immediately welcomed the proposal.

“We’ve been constantly reiterating that these three zones were devised on pretty much nothing aside from wind models calculating the dispersion of the ashes,” said Fabio Gamba, the group deputy secretary-general.

“What EASA is trying to do is lead with a more US-type approach, for which we are grateful,” he said.

A new eruption from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul volcano disrupted air traffic between North America and Europe again over the weekend. Ash also floated over the Iberian Peninsula and other parts of southern Europe, eventually touching the North African coast in Morocco before starting to disperse.

Eurocontrol, the continent’s air safety management agency, said small areas of high ash concentration at lower altitudes were still causing difficulties on Wednesday for trans-Atlantic flights. They were also affecting the mid-Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores.

Meanwhile, Morocco’s Transport Ministry said that ten of its airports — including Casablanca — reopened Wednesday and air traffic had normalized after a daylong shutdown prompted by the drifting ash.

Associated Press writer Hassan Alaoui in Rabat, Morocco, contributed to this report.

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