In late April, scientists from Denmark’s University of Copenhagen and the University of Iceland in Reykjavik published the findings of an almost year-long study into last year’s eruption of the Eyjafjallajokul volcano. They concluded that European aviation authorities had been correct to shut down huge sections of airspace for prolonged periods, disrupting journeys for some 10 million passengers and costing the airlines as much as $3.5 billion in losses.
The research team tested volcanic ash particles collected at the most explosive stage of the eruption and compared them to samples from a later, and more typical, eruption. Using several different techniques, including atomic force microscopy, scanning electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction, they concluded that the ash from the early, explosive phase of the eruption was extremely fine and powdery. This meant that it stayed airborne at airliner cruise altitudes for longer and, helped by prevailing wind conditions, spread farther than more typical ash, which is generally larger and more granular.
The nano particle scientists also concluded that the ash was especially sharp and likely to cause damage to engines and aircraft structures, and that the particles had retained their sharp, damaging edges for longer than was considered typical. Being smaller, the ash particles also melted more quickly than standard particles and so had further potential to harm aircraft components they settled on.
The research offered validation to aviation officials whose prolonged grounding of aircraft had provoked vitriolic abuse from airline managements who were watching their bottom lines take a battering at a time they could ill afford further losses. When the study was published last month, vindicating the approach of the authorities, the airline critics were noticeably silent in response, with none having the good grace to accept that their reaction had been proved to be hasty and ill considered. With one all-too predictable exception: low-cost carrier Ryanair.
In an April 27 statement, the airline’s communications director Stephen McNamara lambasted what he described as a “nonsensical report,” sarcastically mocking its authors as “allegedly” being “scientists.” The nub of Ryanair’s characteristically bombastic complaint was that the new research findings did not support the case for such a widespread closure of airspace and that the evidence cannot be correct because they do not “explain how aircraft routinely fly around volcanic eruptions in Alaska and Southeast Asia, without any threat to air safety.”
In fact, the new report goes into exhaustive detail to explain why the ash particles could have been dispersed so widely and why they could have posed such a grave danger to aircraft. The scientists’ research also has established a protocol for modeling how far, high and wide volcanic ash is being spread following an eruption. This should give aviation authorities greater confidence in making safety decisions in future episodes–something that responsible airlines ought to welcome.
But Ryanair dismissively concluded that the report’s findings must be false because aircraft fly close to volcanic eruptions in other parts of the world. In fact, that is exactly the point of the new research: that maybe old assumptions about how volcanic ash behaves need to be challenged. Ryanair’s logic is blatantly flawed and completely misses the point of this valuable research. If unsafe flying is permitted on one side of the world, why on earth does it follow that it should be OK everywhere, especially when new scientific research has revealed it to be wrong?
Eager to tap Ryanair’s doubtless limitless pool of scientific learning on the subject, AIN called the Ireland-based carrier’s PR team to ask what data it had as the basis for its character assassination of the 13 experienced nano particle experts who wrote the report. “A statement is a statement,” was the all the spokesman at the Dublin branch of the Edelman PR agency could offer. When pressed further on what research Ryanair has done on the subject and what qualifications McNamara has to support his contentions, AIN was told that the company “has nothing further to add.”
Well, of course, Ryanair has nothing further to add, because it actually never had anything to contribute in the first place to what should be a reasoned debate. The airline’s ignorant intervention on the volcanic ash issue is consistent with a long line of vacuous outbursts, usually delivered by Ryanair’s rent-a-mouth chief executive Michael O’Leary.
Whenever aviation regulators or industry rivals act in a way that is perceived to be of some particular disadvantage to Ryanair, O’Leary–or on this occasion his loud-mouthed lackey McNamara–is given to launching into a rambling tirade, questioning the integrity and capability of those who have dared to stand in the way of what Ryanair hubristically considers to be its destiny and birth-right. Airport fees, security regulations–you name it and the Ryanair PR machine erupts with completely predictable self-serving comments.
What sets Ryanair apart from other airlines in Europe is its belief that rules and market conditions should be built entirely around its needs. Anyone who stands in its way will likely endure a tongue-lashing like that delivered to the scientists who, after realizing that the air transport industry had done no meaningful research itself, gave their own time to try to make sense of Eyjafjallajokul’s impact on air transport, and the all too real threat to human life.