ERA delegates demand redress for volcano losses

 - October 27, 2010, 6:26 AM

European Regions Airline Association member airlines expressed “outrage” at the failure of national governments in the region to compensate them for costs incurred in reimbursing passengers for flight cancellations following the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in April. Airlines say the costs arose from events totally beyond their control and have called for the ERA to pursue possible legal remedies, instructing the lobby group to take “any opportunity for instigating a class action to recover damages.”

Almost 9,700 flights, nearly 13 percent of those planned by ERA members, were cancelled after authorities closed large areas of airspace. Central Europe accounted for 43 percent of flights lost and Nordic airspace a further third, but eastern and southern areas escaped relatively lightly.

At the ERA annual general assembly in Barcelona in late ­September, complaints about costs arising from the event were added to long-running concerns about airport-slot allocation, for example, and other “flawed” European Union legislation.
“The custodians of our airspace were simply not ­prepared [and] the cost to airlines of passenger compensation and assistance requirements outweighed lost revenue by about 50 ­percent,” said ERA director-general Mike Ambrose.

Outgoing ERA president Antonis Simigdalas added, “Many airlines will need at least all of 2011 to recover from the revenue lost and the severe cash-flow problems from [European Regulation] 261/2004 for passenger-care requirements.”

European air-navigation services were “unprepared despite past warnings” and events such as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, according to Ambrose. In 2003, the ERA warned the European Commission (EC) and European Parliament (EP) that Regulation 261/2004 was wholly inappropriate to deal with any system-wide disruption. In the Eyjafjallajökull event there was “no consistency of action, ­policy or decision-making” and no compensation for airlines facing unlimited liability for passenger care.

Douglas Johnson, head of the UK Meteorological Office transport program, tried to counter misconceptions about the role of Britain’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre, one of nine worldwide. He explained that the European/North Atlantic airspace-region contingency plan followed the 2004 eruption of Icelandic volcano Grimvotn and included half-yearly simulation exercises, with which “it was very hard to get the airlines involved.”

The standard dispersion model used in April had produced ash maps and forecasts similar to others produced in France and Canada. (Subsequently, the contingency plan was changed to include zoned concentration charts.)

Eurocontrol’s network-operations division deputy head, Brian Flynn, said the situation proved much worse than anything simulated. “Knowledge of volcanic ash is still not very well advanced and there is not a harmonized [European] approach to how [another ash cloud] would be handled,” he said. Other types of crises–chemical, nuclear or security-related–also had to be considered. He said the EC is proposing network management, a task that likely would be given to Eurocontrol and should “include authority to take decisions at the start of a crisis.”

“Europe’s politicians have sat on their hands for far too long,” Simigdalas and Ambrose said in a joint statement. “Airlines have lost patience and been forced to seek alternative legal solutions to recover the additional costs they incurred. [These] events showed that air transport is an essential element of our society: it is now time for governments to recognize the value [the industry] brings to the economy and the European communities it serves.”