Airlines Demand Payback for Volcano Chaos

 - April 23, 2010, 5:54 AM
Airline operators across vast areas of Europe were brought to a complete halt for six days by a volcanic ash cloud, and the knock-on effect of the disruption was felt around the world with hundreds of thousands of passengers stranded and aircraft and flight crew displaced (Photo Credit: Aeroports de Paris)

The flying in Europe has resumed and the recriminations over the six-day closure of vast swathes of the continent’s airspace by a volcanic ash cloud have just begun. According to the International Air Transport Association, the crisis has cost carriers more than $1.7 billion in lost revenue. Some of the most seriously affected airlines, such as British Airways, have demanded compensation from governments, arguing that authorities overreacted to the safety threat posed by the ash and closed airspace too comprehensively and for too long. Governments argue that they had little choice but to opt for a complete closure, given the initial lack of conclusive technical data on the effect of ash on engines in a fast-changing situation.

But the unprecedented emergency has established, surely beyond doubt, the lack of viability of European Union rules on passenger compensation for cancelled or long-delayed flights. EU carriers face completely open-ended costs covering hotel accommodation and meals for stranded passengers who might each have paid just $10 for their tickets. The circumstance prompted bombastic Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary to declare that he will not pay passenger compensation, urging the Irish government to prosecute him for breach of EU law. For those AIN readers who haven’t had the benefit of O’Leary’s previous contributions to enlightened discussion of air transport business models, he is the airline chief executive who plans to charge passengers to use lavatories during flights.

So are airlines and the aerospace industry completely blameless victims in this situation? Volcanologists have claimed that they have repeatedly tried to work with the industry to develop a clear understanding of the safety implications of volcanic ash, to no avail. Following the 1982 incident in which a BA Boeing 747 lost power from all four engines after flying into a volcanic ash cloud over Indonesia, the International Civil Aviation Organization established a network to inform the industry and authorities about volcanic eruptions. But, on its own admission, the United Nations-backed body still has yet to issue clear and comprehensive guidelines on the precise safety parameters and recommended procedures for air transport operations in such conditions.