Thursday, April 22, 2010

How One Airline Skirts the Ash Cloud

By Scott McCartney

Alaska Airlines knows volcanic ash. Its decades of experience navigating around volcanic eruptions in Washington and Alaska could prove useful as airlines return to Europe's ash-plagued skies.

Among the lessons: Pilot training, computer modeling to accurately predict ash trajectories and regular testing of the skyways when eruptions occur are crucial to maintaining safety and keeping planes flying. The Alaska Airlines experience suggests a volcanic eruption in Iceland doesn't have to ground all flights in Northern Europe—there are ways to work around it.

Planes took to the skies across much of Europe on Tuesday, five days after the volcanic eruption under the Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FYAH'-tlah-yer-kuh-duhl) glacier in Iceland grounded thousands of flights and caused massive travel disruptions. It isn't clear whether flights could have resumed sooner. But that's mainly because government officials, weather experts and airlines didn't put their heads together to determine where the ash was, and where it wasn't.

Instead, the Iceland crisis resulted in a blanket closure of a huge swath of airspace, rather than a more targeted, scientific approach in which some routes are found to be clear of ash and left open. Governments were slow to understand the world-wide impact of the shutdown and based decisions to close airspace on theoretical models with little data collected or few tests done, complained Giovanni Bisignani, director general and chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, a Geneva-based airline-industry grou

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