/ 17 May 2010

Branson fumes at ash cloud travel restrictions

Flights were cancelled across large parts of Britain on Sunday as the continuing disruption from the volcanic ash cloud reignited tensions between airlines and the aviation safety watchdog.

Air traffic controllers imposed a no-fly zone in northern England, including Manchester, Liverpool, Carlisle, Doncaster, Humberside and East Midlands airports, all airports in Northern Ireland and some Scottish airports, until at least 1am today. In the north of England, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds Bradford airports will be allowed to reopen from 1am on Monday after being closed for most of Sunday.

On Sunday night, Birmingham, Norwich, and all London airports were added to the no-fly zone as the latest cloud from Iceland drifted south. The flight ban will last until at least 7am, air traffic authority Nats said. The new restrictions stretch as far south as Shoreham, West Sussex, although other UK airports may be able to reopen after ash clears from the skies above them.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said that the threat from the cloud would last until at least Monday — when 11 000 British Airways cabin crew are due to embark on 20 days of strikes.

Nats, the national air traffic controller, had warned yesterday that a high-density volcanic ash cloud, deemed dangerous under latest safety guidelines established by the CAA, was drifting towards UK airspace. The transport secretary, Philip Hammond, urged travellers to phone airlines or airports to check on the changing situation, and the Met Office launched five-day ash cloud forecasts online, which showed the southern tip of the cloud hitting the south coast of England by midday.

Airlines reacted angrily to the grounding, with Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic calling the closure of Manchester airport “beyond a joke”. He accused air traffic chiefs of overreacting and called on the government to intervene to “avoid doing further unnecessary damage to the UK economy and lives of travellers”.

A six-day closure of UK and European airspace last month cost the aviation industry an estimated £2,1-billion, with Britsh Airways (BA) calling the shutdown scandalous.

Yesterday, Branson sided with his rival BA, saying test flights by airlines, aircraft and engine manufacturers had shown no evidence that planes could not continue to fly safely. “It is obviously dangerous to fly through the mouth of a volcano, as has been demonstrated time and time again on television by what happened to the BA plane [a flight that almost crashed in Indonesia in 1982],” said Branson. “However, the volcano is hundreds of miles away from the UK. Over 1000 flights took off from France last week in similar conditions to that which exist in Manchester today without encountering any problems or showing any levels of ash concentration. We need strong leadership to intervene.”

EasyJet, one of Europe’s largest short-haul carriers, said the CAA was overreacting. “We have operated more than 20 000 flights since the skies reopened and we have detected no problems on any flights. So the current approach seems over-cautious.”

The CAA’s chief executive, Andrew Haines, has accused the aviation industry of “a fantastic piece of buck-passing” by blaming safety regulators for years-old volcanic ash guidelines that stated “avoid avoid avoid” when aeroplanes encounter smoke plumes. The original rules were drawn up after consultations with aircraft and engine manufacturers, who had to be persuaded to rewrite the guidelines over a frantic 96-hour period last month.

Under previous rules the ash cloud now over the United Kingdom would have grounded all flights in the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, northern France and northern Germany. However, the new regime marks only pockets of the UK and Ireland as no-go areas. Airlines have also criticised the computer model the Met Office uses to predict ash movement.

A CAA spokesperson said regulators could not change safety guidelines without the industry’s assistance. “It is up to the airlines and their engine suppliers to come up with a new safety level. If it meets safety standards we will implement it. We do not have the engines and the test facilities — they do. The ball is in their court.”

Forecasters expect changing winds to take ash from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano away from Britain. The cloud is expected to drift near London today before leaving UK airspace on Wednesday.

One safety expert warned that the airspace closures could continue for years, or as long as the Eyjafjallajökull volcano continues to erupt.

“It could become a way of life for us and there is nothing we can do about it,” said David Learmount, operations and safety editor of Flight International magazine. “There is no technology on the horizon that will make airplanes and engines less susceptible to this stuff. We can only get better at detecting it so you can literally navigate through it, like a man walking through a forest.” — uardian News and Media