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Ash danger unclear despite green light

The Local · 21 Apr 2010, 14:53

Published: 21 Apr 2010 14:53 GMT+02:00

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A DFS air traffic authority spokeswoman said the agency, which opened Germany’s airspace at 11 am Wednesday, had based its decisions on information provided by the German Weather Service (DWD).

The DWD in turn used data from Britain’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAAC) and computer simulations to estimate how the data applied to German air space, she said.

“Today, we see no contamination,” she said.

The DFS has consistently relied on the VAAC data and computer modelling in deciding whether to allow flights - an approach that has been criticised by airlines. Only on Monday did another agency, the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) gather raw data from German airspace to determine how much ash was actually in the air.


The DLR’s report said the ash cloud was visible as a “brown layer” and measurements showed the air above Leipzig at about 4,000 metres altitude showed a contamination of 60 microgrammes of ash particles per square metre - a level comparable to dust from the Sahara Desert that sometimes blows into the German atmosphere.

The report stated the test plane suffered no damage, but did not offer an assessment of the danger of this level of contamination – and the actual threshold at which ash becomes dangerous remains unclear.

Airlines, particularly Germany’s biggest carrier Lufthansa and second biggest, Air Berlin, spent days criticising the reliance on computer simulations, as tens of thousands of flights across Europe were cancelled and losses for airlines mounted.

Lufthansa spokesman Klaus Walther told Bild am Sonntag newspaper: “The flight ban, which is completely based on computer calculations, is causing economic damage in the billions. This is why, for the future, we demand that dependable measurements must be available before a flight ban is imposed.”

On Wednesday, a Lufthansa spokesman, Thomas Jachnow, dismissed suggestions the airline was engaging in a double standard by now accepting the DFS’s ruling without complaint.

“Our decision depends on the decisions of the DFS. We followed the rules before and we’re following them now,” he told The Local. “We were simply asking the question from the beginning whether one computer simulation was enough to say something about the amount of volcanic ash over Germany.”

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Jachnow said test flights made by Lufthansa in partnership with the Max Planck Institute showed no damage to engines or equipment.

The results of the flight's contamination tests would be released in coming days, he added.

Air Berlin did not respond immediately to a request for comment on how the DFS justified the ban.

Meanwhile a report by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said the several days of grounded European flights from volcanic ash had cost airlines $1.7 billion in lost sales alone.

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Your comments about this article

15:38 April 21, 2010 by Bosporusanwohner
Ganz klar, dass die Fluglinien hier herummeckern, sie haben ja nicht den Menschen sondern ihre Geldgier vor Augen. Die Menschen sind ihnen egal. Ein Flugzeug am Boden bringt kein Geld, ein Flugzeug das abstürzt sehr wohl, von den Versicherungen naemlich.
16:13 April 21, 2010 by LancashireLad
Please remember this is an english speaking forum.

Lufthansa at the very least won't get any insurance money as (I read) they are not insured for this. I don't know about other airlines.

I agree though that the airlines are not being as altruistic as they would have us believe. It doesn't matter how many static tests are run - and they are all static i.e. only at one point in time - because the weather blows the dust around and as one pilot commented on pprune yesterday, single flights at the moment are less likely to be affected. The problem will be a cumulative one. What damage might be cause by the continued dust in the air over time?

I have to agree that the airlines are also thinking about their shareholders as well as any staff and stranded passengers. Also, the quicker they get the passengers home, and the more they seem to be worried about doing so, the less likely people are to sue.
18:33 April 21, 2010 by dcgi
Don't worry everyone, if you're on an ash-bound flight and the molten ash manages to melt onto the engine and clog it, apparently the pilot needs to just shutdown the engines, take it into a dive, the cool air then fractures the glassy ash that's clogging the engines and then he might just be able to start the engine and pull up before you hit the ground. :)

I'm flying back to the UK with Ryanair in May, should be fun, I'm sure they'll offer me the opportunity to pay something extra to have them fly above the ash-cloud.
19:34 April 21, 2010 by wood artist
I believe, if you look at this from the airline's point of view, that most of what they've done and said makes perfect sense.

Airlines must always balance safety against costs. They are highly regulated with regards to safety, and, at least in the US, they pay heavy fines when they screw up, even if it's just a record-keeping function.

They need to fly to make money, but flying safely matters more. Should they push to have the restrictions lifted, and then crash a plane, the lawsuits would likely finish them.

In this case, the problem is restrictions based on a lack of data. They know there is ash in the air, not where nor how much. They know that historically planes have stalled after flying through ash, but this is not the density of those prior events. There is one "test" where damage was found, but no one has said where the Finnish air force was flying when it happened, nor how dense the cloud was at the time.

There are several tests over Europe showing no damage. There are no objective standards available that establish what density is dangerous. So, the airlines are quite correct to question whether the regulatory people know what they're talking about.

I'm flying Sunday ( was supposed to fly last Sunday) and I have no fears about it. Although I'm not happy with the extra costs I've incurred, I live with that. I am disappointed that decisions were based upon nothing more than guesses.

20:21 April 21, 2010 by Obi-Wan
I think that grounding all flights across the continent based on trivial computer simulations is somewhat uncalled for.

I know for sure i'll be freaking pissed off to have my flight canceled just because someone decided to introduce some safety warning with very little basis.

Particles are always in the atmosphere whether it comes from volcanos or haze. Maybe its just too basic a mentality I have, I look outside the window the sun is shining brightly.

How bad can this volcanic ash pollution be that all flights across the continent must be grounded? Seems like a massive over-reaction.
21:04 April 21, 2010 by wmm208
A MD-11 plane had to land in Belgium today du to engine failure. Not safe to fly...
09:18 April 22, 2010 by LancashireLad
The reason the air traffic control authorities kept the ban for so long is that they were operating on little information and also conflicting information. The various computer simulations from the various countries in Europe did not match up. Just read what the pilots on pprune are saying about the Met Office. Lufthansa et. al. sent up test flights but from what I understand they were low level - I remain to be corrected. The Finnish flight however was apparently in relatively clear conditions - again I got that from pprune and the repondents there are more likely to know what they are talking about and have access to different information than us - unless one of us is a professional pilot.

I have said it before and I will say it again. The airlines will do the maths and if they judge the risk to be low enough - not necessarily zero - they will fly ... if the air traffic authorities will allow them. That's the rub. If an airline pushes to fly and another airline who has not pushed loses a plane - who gets sued? The air traffic authorities. That is why they are being careful. The airlines know that their financial losses due to the flight ban are costing them more more and is more likely to ruin them than the potential loss of a plane. Planes have gone down before but the airlines are still flying. The people have a choice of whether or not they get in the plane as they also know the potential risks. I actually don't think that a crash after this will necessariyl finish an airline. There will lots of finger pointing, and wringing etc. but life will go on. Sorry to be so pessimistic but I am a human, a realist, and a Brit. That combination isn't known for optimism.

I am sorry for all those who are stranded but I still think the air authorities did the right thing - apart from not sending up weather ballons to measure the situation - providing that weather ballon technology can supply that kind of information.
07:51 April 26, 2010 by Lex
and had 3 or 4 planes crashed killing all on-board, the airlines would now be saying 'we should have been told not to fly, they should have closed the airspace if they knew the danger'........
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