Ash clouds continue to affect flights

KLM has stepped up the pressure to lift European flight restrictions caused by the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano after operating ten test flights this weekend, including a flight from Düsseldorf to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

On Sunday night KLM’s first two commercial freight flights took off from Amsterdam to the Asian cities of Bangkok and Taipei. This morning KLM completed another test flight between Schiphol and Paris.

According to a spokeswoman for KLM the weekend tests, which were conducted at normal altitude, showed no damage to aeroplane engines.

The test aeroplanes, however, were fitted with filters that KLM stated were necessary to demonstrate the presence of particles in the air. These filters found the air ‘clean’.

‘The test flights we made and the commercial flights we did yesterday were to show it is possible and safe to fly on certain routes in Europe,’ she said. ‘We are just awaiting the approval and really hope we can start up part of the operation ASAP.’

While recognising the burden flight restrictions are putting on the airline industry and passengers, the engineering community remain wary that flying aeroplanes through ash clouds is extremely risky no matter what precautions are taken.

Stewart John, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, stated:

‘The airlines are doing the responsible thing at the moment, but we really do need to start thinking of ways round this as we don’t know how long the problem is going to last. I have been asked about planes flying at different heights but this isn’t really a solution.

‘Civil aircraft attain a maximum height of about 40,000 feet and their engines operate optimally at these heights. For every drop of 5,000 feet below this a plane uses about five to six per cent more fuel, which is obviously a large amount on a long flight. But just as importantly, you could think that you’re safe flying along at 20,000 feet rather than up at 40,000 where the ash is, only to find that the wind has suddenly dropped and the ash is now at 20,000 feet. It would be a false sense of security so it really is vitally important that test flights are done that cover the entire spectrum of flight patterns.’

As to whether or not engines can be designed better to handle volcano ash–such as with filters–a spokesman for aero-engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney stated that would be ‘cost prohibitive.’

‘Therefore the best approach to maintain aircraft safety is through a combination of avoidance and modified operating procedures designed to minimise the impact of ash on the aircraft system. This approach has been effectively demonstrated by the industry.’

The cost of grounding flights, however, is reaching a critical point. According to the Professor Keith Hayward, head of research at the Royal Aeronautical Society, if it goes on for weeks it will mean a total ‘meltdown’ for the airline industry.

So far, the halt on air travel is reportedly costing airlines up to $200m a day.

It likely going to hit low fare airlines the hardest because the business model for those companies ‘depend on having aeroplanes in the air.’ said Hayward.

The rumours now suggest, Hayward said, that the airline industry – like the financial sector – will need a serious government bailout.

‘The precedent here is not European but in the United States following 9/11,’ he said. ‘A federal subsidy to US carriers affected by the three day shut down at the time the Europeans jumped up and down and said where’s ours because they were affected by loss of traffic across the Atlantic but there was no bail out from Brussels.

‘That’s the interesting rub here. I don’t think you could move in Europe without a Brussels agreement. If a national government moved to bail out British Airways, the UK would be affected immediately by European competition law.’

Hayward alluded to Brown’s announcement today that money for a European-wide airline bailout could possibly be picked out of The EU Solidarity Fund.

The question on everyone’s mind remains: How much longer can this ban go on for? Brown said that will come after reviewing the results of flight tests and recommendations from manufacturers. In the interim, Brown announced today that three Royal Navy ships will help bring home thousands of Britons stranded by what he termed ‘the most serious transport disruption’ ever in Europe.

Today the British commercial pilots union Balpa has criticised the government’s decision on when to lift the ban as lacking transparency and urgency.

‘It’s astonishing that pilots have not been able to see the data that the National Air Traffic Service have got,’ a union spokesman said.

‘We need an urgent summit conference within 24 hours with pilots, airlines, Department of Transport and National Air Traffic Service, all together to decide together when to reopen the air space.’

It just seems obvious, the spokesman suggested, that pilots should have some say on when it is safe to fly.

‘The pilots had meetings all day yesterday,’ he said. ‘They’re not going to fly, whatever the government says, unless they’re convinced it’s safe.’

Airports were shut down at noon on Thursday April 15 amid fears that ash spewing from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajoekull could severely damage aeroplane engines.

Flight restrictions across Europe entered its fifth day today, April 19. Air traffic control service Nats has extended the ban across much of the UK to 0100 BST. It announced it will be scaling back restrictions to 0700 BST on Tuesday for Scotland and Northern Ireland

AP reports that Germany’s aviation authority has granted Lufthansa permission to fly 50 planes back to Germany with about 15,000 passengers aboard.