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Volcanic ash disruption: one year on and crisis preparedness

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Brussels, 12 April 2011

Volcanic ash disruption: one year on and crisis preparedness

One year after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in April 2010, a wide range of follow up measures have been taken – as agreed by ministers at the Transport Council of May 4 2010 on the basis of proposals by the Commission – at international, EU and national level to improve crisis preparedness in aviation, particularly in relation to volcanic ash. The results so far are listed below, but the work is ongoing. The European Commission, Eurocontrol and the European Aviation Safety Agency will participate in the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) simulation exercise on April 13 and 14 to test the effectiveness of the changes to the ICAO volcanic ash contingency plan for Europe and procedures. The Commission, based on the results of the simulation as well as its assessment of progress to date, will report back Transport Ministers in June.

European Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas, responsible for transport, said: "The intensive efforts over the last twelve months have paid off in terms of improving crisis planning and systems. But the work goes on. Volcanoes and other aviation crises are by their nature unpredictable and each one will be different. We can never get to zero risk but we can make maximum efforts to prepare strong systems to cope with disasters. There have been major improvements in international volcanic ash guidelines, very significant progress to fast track the Single European Sky and intensive work to produce transparent information for airlines on thresholds for ash. The volcanic ash simulation exercise this month will provide more feedback on the work that needs to be done. On this basis and on the basis of a detailed analysis of progress made, the Commission will report back to Transport Ministers in June and if necessary recommend further action to be taken."

The major developments since April 2011:

Revised ash contingency plan for Europe (ICAO)
Following the ash crisis, co-ordinated European action was urgently needed to revise the existing international procedures in case of volcanic activity (ICAO guidelines for Europe). The existing ICAO guidelines had proved unsuitable during the crisis, as they were based a very strict precautionary principle.

In December 2010, ICAO finalised the revision of its 'volcanic ash contingency plan' for Europe, including standardised guidelines for the alerting of aircraft when eruptions occur, and procedures to be followed, also in cases of possible closure of airspace.

This guidance material, reflecting the approach brokered by the European Commission during the weekend of 17 and 18 April 2010 based on the experience of Eyjafjallajökull, now distinguishes between three degrees of ash contamination intended to be used operationally in Europe should there be further eruptions.

A volcanic eruption exercise will take place on 13/14 April 2011 under the auspices of ICAO to test and verify the effectiveness of the new contingency plan.

In parallel, ICAO has established its International Volcanic Ash Task Force in June 2010 to review all elements linked to volcanic eruption guidance material, including development of a global safety risk management framework, and to make possible the routine determination of safe levels of operation in airspace contaminated by ash. It is developing guidance material for flight operations management and the procedures of state aviation authorities. Results are expected to be presented in June 2011.

Accelerating the integration of European air traffic management through the Single European Sky (SES) initiative The crisis exposed the need for a much greater co-ordination of Europe's air traffic management system. The existing national fragmentation of air traffic control exacerbated and intensified the effects of the crisis. The acceleration of the SES initiative implementation was given the highest political priority by the European Council on 4 May 2010.

Work on the Single European Sky has moved forward very significantly over the last year. The most important measures delivered in 2010 are as follows:

Performance targets: In February 2011, Member States adopted, on the basis of proposals from the Commission, performance targets for the Single European Sky. These are key targets – set at EU and national level – for air traffic management, for example in terms of efficiency standards for traffic management, for levels of flight delays, safety standards and environmental impact. These standards go to the heart of the SES structure and reaching a common agreement with Member States was a significant step forwards towards establishing the Single European Sky.

Functional airspace blocks: The Single European Sky air traffic management system will be built on nine different groups of Member States organised into functional airspace blocks (FABs). It is for Member States to agree and create the individual functional airspace blocks, but to do that the Commission needed to adopt a FAB implementing rule and guidance material, setting out the basis as to how this should be done. These rules were adopted by Member States, based on the Commission's proposals, in the Single Sky Committee on the 3 December 2010. To date, three FABs have been established on the basis of intergovernmental agreements: UK /Ireland FAB; Denmark/Sweden FAB; and FABEC (including France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland). The deadline for the nine FABs to be implemented is 4 December 2012. Based on the current programming, the schedule for FABs is on track and objectives will be largely met.

On common safety standards for the Single European Sky, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) must have a greater role. In 2010, there was a significant acceleration of plans to extend the competences of the European Aviation Safety Agency to include safety regulation in the field of air traffic management, thereby further enhancing a harmonised European approach when it comes to the overall priority of maintaining safety as aviation's first priority. A formal decision by Member States is expected in April 2011.

Designation of a network manager: At the centre of the Single European Sky is the network manager which will provide a central entity to co-ordinate European Air Traffic control on a daily basis, as well as taking the lead in coordinating the response to future crisis situations affecting aviation. In 2010, the work to designate Eurocontrol as the network manager has been accelerated, with the adoption of the 'network functions' implementing rule and the designation by Member States of Eurocontrol to allow for an optimised and coordinated use of European airspace.

Establishment of a crisis cell: In 2010, the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) was established. The EACCC, when activated, is chaired by the Commission and Eurocontrol, and includes participation from the EU Presidency, air navigation service providers, airspace users, and airports, as well as other relevant stakeholders as deemed necessary according to the nature of a crisis. The crisis cell is designed as an additional support structure for the network manager in a crisis situation.

The Aviation Platform: After the crisis, the Commission decided to establish an aviation platform, convened by Vice-President Kallas, with key stakeholders at European level, to facilitate long-term co-ordination with the air transport sector, as well as to allow for effective short-term follow up to these crisis measures. The Aviation Platform has been established as a high-level group from the aviation sector to provide strategic advice regarding a sustainable future for air transport and a competitive future for the European aviation industry. Its members called for the full implementation of SES; for the extension of the SES principles to areas beyond the borders of the European Union; and for the definition of an effective governance structure for the future deployment of SESAR.

Technology for SES (SESAR deployment). SESAR is the technological arm of the Singl e European Sky. Work has intensified on the detail of the SESAR deployment strategy in 2010, which will allow the Commission to present a communication to the Council on governance and funding mechanisms for the SESAR deployment phase in the course of 2011.

Risk assessment and management

The information necessary to allow national and European authorities, as well as airlines, to make accurate risk assessment about flying in volcanic ash conditions was not available during the April 2010 crisis.

The very substantial amount of work has been done in particular on two fronts: (i) ash thresholds; (ii) meteorological modelling

(i) ash thresholds:

The European Aviation Safety Agency has been working on the issue of determining a threshold for volcanic ash since it was mandated to do so by the Transport Council conclusions in May 2010. The work to establish a single ash threshold is proving to be extremely challenging.

It has become increasingly clear that in reality, every volcanic ash crisis may be different and the nature of the ash will be different. So establishing a "one size fits all" threshold is not viable in the short term. EASA will keep working on this issue, but it will certainly not be resolved in the short term. To note, this kind of threshold does not exist anywhere else in the world – even in areas like America, or Southeast Asia where there is a longer experience dealing with these issues – so it is not possible to adapt something from elsewhere in the world.

However the issue is very important. Now EASA are moving to tackle the problem with another solution. Not a "one size fits all" threshold, but legally binding measures which will require engine manufactures to provide detailed information about risk associated with volcanic ash exposure and tolerance levels of the different engines they produce.

In Autumn 2011, EASA will publish a proposal for legally binding measures (i.e. changes to EASA's existing airworthiness codes) to require engine manufactures to provide to airlines detailed information on the risk associated with different volcanic ash exposure and tolerance levels. Engine manufactures are not currently obliged to do this. EASA should formally adopt such measures, following the consultation period, in early 2012. The EASA proposal for a notice of proposed amendment will address the need to define and standardise airworthiness data provided by the engine manufactures that is required as input into operational risk assessment.)

This will be a major step forwards in terms of the basic problem of providing airlines with the key information they need on risk and ash tolerance to make the necessary assessments about flying in volcanic ash conditions. In particular it should allow for much more accurate risk assessment for airlines flying in "grey zones" in any ash crisis.

(ii) meteorological products:

The other area where efforts have concentrated has been on fine tuning the meteorological products used in a crisis situation. There is a clear need for greater accuracy and enhanced modelling. This has involved work on both the information sources feeding into the models - as well as on the modelling systems themselves.

In terms of increasing the quality of data that feeds into the models, new radar systems have been established in Iceland. In addition, the London VAAC centre has acquired new airborne measure capability – with a new plane and instruments to increase the quality and quantity of input from test flights in ash.

This is of critical importance in allowing the aviation community to receive accurate, timely and consistent information about the position, amount, composition, altitude, projected trajectory and drift of volcanic ash. This in turn allows for improvements and accuracy in operational decision making.

At European level, a new tool has been produced by EUROCONTROL, the 'European Crisis Visualization Interactive Tool for ATFCM' (EVITA). Member States still decide to open and close their airspace but this tool allows for a much more effective capacity to visualise this information in real time and will assist the airlines in their operational decision making and facilitate a greater level of air traffic management in affected airspace.

Uniform co-ordination of passenger rights after the volcanic crisis

One of the key requests from ministers after the volcanic crisis was for the Commission to ensure a uniform application of passenger rights legislation after the volcanic ash crisis. It was important to ensure that passengers across Europe could access their rights, and that industry could rely on a common interpretation of the law across Europe.

In the weeks following the volcanic crisis the European Commission co-ordinated the network of national authorities to agree on common interpretive guidance for national enforcement bodies (NEB) in dealing with passenger rights claims related to the volcanic crisis. The Commission also worked extensively with national authorities and individual airlines to assure a consistent approach across the EU.

It is estimated that around 10,000 passenger complaints have been received by national enforcement authorities following the ash crisis. Considering that millions of passengers were affected by the flight cancellations, this figure is relatively low – over 100,000 flights were cancelled during the volcanic ash crisis in April 2010, with over 10 million people affected.

One year on, the Commission's assessment is that the large majority of airlines took their

responsibilities seriously during the ash crisis. Claims for reimbursement for cancelled flights were dealt with in a reasonable period of time, as were many claims for re-routing and short-term care. The bulk of claims which have not been settled by the carriers and thus have had to go to national authorities, are the more problematic ones because the passengers were stranded (often abroad) for longer periods, and therefore have very substantial claims. These claims need to be assessed by national authorities and if necessary, will be settled in court.

The Commission will this month (April 2010) publish two communications assessing the functioning of Regulation 261/2004 on air passenger rights and Regulation 1107/2006 on people with reduced mobility (the "PRM regulation") and setting out the next steps forward. The communications take into account lessons, in particular, learnt from the volcanic ash and snow crisis of 2010 considering the need to enhance the cooperation amongst competent authorities and to revise some provisions of the Regulation 261/2004.

European mobility action plans The protracted closure of European airspace following the volcanic eruption in Iceland left extremely frustrated travellers stranded in airports.

After the volcanic ash crisis, transport ministers in their meeting of May 4 2010 strongly supported the Commission's proposals to step up work on pan-European mobility plans. It was clear in both the volcanic crisis and snow crisis in December 2010, that when one mode of transport is severely affected, other modes were not easily able to step in and fill the gap. At the Transport Council of 2/3 December 2010 the Commission provided a detailed brief to ministers on its initiative to strengthen the resilience of the European transport system by ensuring the uninterrupted mobility of passengers and goods in the event of a sudden transport crisis.

The Commission has asked national governments for feedback on the different aspects of these proposals, in order to be able to move forwards.

Next steps

April 2011: ICAO volcanic ash simulation exercise

The European Commission, EUROCONTROL, and EASA will participate in a major ICAO crisis exercise to test the effectiveness of changes and improvements to the ICAO volcanic ash contingency plan and procedures. The exercise will take place on 13 and 14 April and will involve over 70 airlines, 14 air navigation service providers, 10 national regulatory authorities, the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre London (VAAC), as well as the European Commission, EASA and EUROCONTROL.

The exercise will allow a full assessment of the impact of applying updated procedures in the ICAO Volcanic Ash Contingency Procedures for Europe. As part of the exercise, the newly-created European Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC) will be activated, and a new tool produced by EUROCONTROL, the 'European Crisis Visualization Interactive Tool for ATFCM' (EVITA) will be tested. The exercise will be a simulation only and there will be no impact on real flights.

The exercise will simulate the eruption of the Grimsvötn volcano in Iceland which results in a volcanic ash cloud spreading south across the North Atlantic and across European airspace. On the first day of the exercise, states will ask EUROCONTROL to open, close or restrict their airspace to aircraft on the basis of their currently applicable national procedures. On the second day of the exercise, a new harmonised European approach will be tested. This approach is in line with draft guidance material from ICAO – ‘Management of Flight Operations with Known or Forecast Volcanic Cloud Contamination’ – which has been developed since April 2010 and allows airlines to decide if they will fly in areas contaminated by ash, on the basis of a safety risk assessment accepted by the relevant national supervisory authority.

Following this exercise, in early June there will be a Europe-wide assessment session to debrief on lessons learnt and to agree follow-up actions.

June 2011: Report by the European Commission to transport ministers on volcanic ash and crisis preparedness. The Commission will provide to transport ministers, in June, an assessment of the progress in terms of volcanic ash and crisis preparedness, and if necessary recommend further actions to be taken.

The Commission will continue to permanently monitor the situation and reserves the right to take any initiative where necessary.