Europe’s Piecemeal Volcano Reaction

It’s no surprise that the issue dominating European news over the last week has been the fallout – in the literal sense – of the Icelandic volcano eruption that has paralyzed most of Europe as an air-flight originator and destination. What has been the surprise is the substantial and expensive impact such an unexpected natural phenomenon had on the very fabric of the economy and other aspects of European life.

Naturally, now that previously-shut airports throughout the continent are gradually starting to resume operations, the sentiment of “Never again!” is taking hold as eyes are cast about in the search of people to blame. In such situations, the temptation becomes overwhelming to avoid having to point fingers by simply blaming a machine, in this case the computer simulation that supposedly was the sole basis for shutting down flight operations once the volcano-ash started to spread. Various aircraft that the European airlines sent up to test actual conditions – including one reportedly dispatched by British Airways with CEO Willie Walsh, a trained pilot himself, aboard – encountered no problems or damage, so that has to constitute conclusive evidence that the flight-bans were panicked overreactions.

Unfortunately, the situation is probably not so simple as that. The assessment of the safety of flights of gigantic airliners with hundreds of passengers aboard one can assume has to be done on the basis of rather broader margins-for-error. I think it’s the editorial-writers at Financial Times Deutschland who have a better view of what went wrong, as expressed in their recent editorial Air traffic: Chaos announced. That title alludes to the FTD’s assertion that, because volcanic ash respects no borders, the various national authorities should have realized long ago that much closer international coordination was necessary in order to deal adequately with whatever sort of phenomena that could come along to threaten it.

Whether it is really reasonable to expect such coordination to have been in place before the Eyjafjallajökull volcano blew its top a week ago, it is clear that the sort of coordination needed was certainly not in place to deal with that. National authorities closed their country’s airspace or limited the operation of their airports in a piecemeal fashion, without consulting their colleagues in other countries. EU transport ministers only got around to conferring – by video-conference, naturally – at the beginning of this week. And it’s not even the EU that is in the best position to take the lead in these matters: you would think that would rather be Eurocontrol (long name: the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation), headquartered in Brussels, and despite that with no explicit organizational connection with the EU, but, with 38 member-states, encompassing most European nations whether they are members of the EU or not.

That’s fine; but clearly neither Eurocontrol nor the EU was up to fulfilling the coordination function that was required to ensure that assessments of the best experts in vulcanology and flight-safety were made widely available and acted upon in a harmonized manner, to ensure that the skies were shut down when the risk of flying was really too great, but that they were also opened up again once the danger had passed. Now we get to see whether these transport ministers have learned any lesson from this experience; after all, Europe has plenty of volcanos on its periphery – not only in Iceland but also in Italy, for example – that could cause all of this mess to happen again.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Comments are closed.