18/05/2010

No-Fly Regulations To Ease Disruption

As volcanic ash cleared the UK today - with south westerly winds becoming more established yesterday - 4NI's UK News service has been looking at the background to the latest round of disruption.

Following lobbying led by budget airlines - such as Ryanair - new rules to allow planes to fly through higher ash densities for a limited time are to be introduced today.

In this way, carriers can actually fly into the 'black' ash zone, but only after agreement from engine manufacturers.

Travellers are however, left wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place with this latest news widely welcomed by airlines, regulators and manufacturers after thousands of passengers were stranded by UK airport closures.

However, all flight restrictions were already being lifted, after the volcanic ash cloud over UK airspace began to move away, but for the future, air traffic control company NATS said it was "delighted" by the new measures, which meant there were "no predicted restrictions on UK airspace in the immediate future".

That's in spite of the latest information being reported by the Met Office - the UK's National Weather Service - being that the Icelandic Meteorological Office indicates that the explosive activity from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano is continuing, with the ash plume reaching heights of up to around 25,000 ft.

An example of the Met Office chart is shown as an illustration, this being the position expected at noon today (Tuesday), with the red area being ash and the black being ash at levels that were previously considered to be "above safe flying concentrations".

The Icelandic Meteorological Office stated there are no signs that the eruption is about to end, with the situation remaining dynamic.

Over the weekend, the ash cloud pushed across parts of the UK, resulting in further closures to UK airspace.

However, two dedicated atmospheric research aircraft, one from the UK and another from Germany, flew on Sunday to investigate the volcanic ash plume moving over the UK.

Both aircraft found an extensive area of ash generally between 15,000ft and 20,000ft covering central and northern UK, drifting south.

In many areas the cloud was clearly visible to the naked eye and was described as 'a grey-black layer'.

The pilots of the aircraft reported that "one should not fly into this layer" - a situation that is now being urgently revised to allow expected take-off and landings through the 'black' areas - with the ash density only being encountered for a short period.

But is it safe? Are the airlines putting the £ before their aircrew and passengers welfare and safety?

Has economic pressure from the loss-making airlines watered down the precautions, potentially exposing passengers to unacceptable risk?

Knowing that turn-around times for budget airlines like Ryanair - which has been at forefront of demands to revise restrictions - are often less than 30 minutes, what chance is there that ground technicians can carry out thorough engine examinations?

Meanwhile, as the debate rumbles on, to keep up to date as the situation eases, the Met Office will continue to provide frequently updated information to NATS and CAA about the movement of the volcanic ash, in line with the standards and tolerances set by the CAA and the aviation industry.

But, the Met Office did underline last night that operational decisions on airspace restrictions are "the responsibility of CAA" and insisted that no decision on airspace restrictions can be made more than 24 hours in advance.

The Met Officer forecasters also warned: "Beyond 18 hours we have to deal with the unpredictability of the volcano and it is worth stressing that forecasts of winds become more uncertain the longer the lead time.

"Hence forecasts are for general guidance only and 'short period charts' must be used for more accurate information."

The Met Office is providing world-renowned scientific excellence in weather, climate and environmental forecasts and severe weather warnings for the protection of life and property.

It regularly advises the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and National Air Traffic Services, (NATS) as volcanic ash can be dangerous for aircraft, causing damage, reducing visibility, and potentially clogging engines

See: Met Offical Ash Plume

(BMcC)

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