Airlines and Ashes

By Robert Mark on April 23rd, 2010

Ashes 2 jetwhine With tens of thousands of travelers stranded all over much of the Western Hemisphere still trying to either get to or from major European destinations last week, airline management became understandably tense at what was indeed the worst travel crisis since 9/11. The Chicago Tribune reported that of the U.S. airlines, Delta lost the most during the standoff with nature at about $30 million. All together, U.S. airlines lost well over $100 million, a pittance though when compared to the entire industry. The International Air Transport Association said the final number would be close to $2 billion, not a surprising amount when you consider that London Heathrow – the busiest airport in Europe – was shut down for a week. Imagine ORD, or LAX or JFK shut down … not slowed down, but completely shut down!

So again, no surprise that the airlines wanted action to remedy the situation quickly. It only took a few days before most CEOs began pointing fingers at the EU claiming they were being too conservative by shutting down most Northern European airspace. Problem is that there is very little research around on how much ash a turbine engine can stand before it shuts down. We know the worst case when a KLM 747 lost all four engines after flying in to the ash cloud from a Mt. Redoubt eruption. No injuries – at least physical – when the pilots got the motors humming again after a 13,000 foot fall.

There’s absolutely nothing worse for airline personnel to be grounded for reasons they can’t control, or even explain. That’s why Lufthansa sent out a specially equipped A 340 last week to test the ash. It returned unscathed prompting the question about whether it might not be OK for others to tempt fate.

Maybe it might have been OK in the end to fly closer. But then again, maybe not. The point the airline folks are missing is they we – the guinea pigs back in seat 37C – are not motivated by the same sense of urgency to find out as the CEO of a company with 250 idle aircraft gathering dust.

Nor should we be.

Volcanic eruptions are not new. The problem is they are quite rare. With our newly found short-term memory issues, we humans often tend to put issues like volcanic research on the back burner until the next time it pops up. We just never thought it could wreak such havoc as we saw last week.

Honestly though, we should call last week’s eruption and the resulting urgency need to fly and put cash in the kitty what it really is, a cost of doing business to the airlines, just as my choosing the wrong solution to a marketing problem that results in lost customers might be one of mine. It simply comes with running an airline.

So it’s probably time for the airlines to ante up for a little volcanic research after this mess is over. Just do we passengers a favor … let’s get some solid data in the kitty before you try to tempt the ash gods with me flying along in the back seat. I only asked for an airline ticket, not a potential thrill ride. I mean really … do you know how fast an 747 descends when all four are shut down? Neither do I. And I don’t want to find out either.

Rob Mark


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11 Responses to “Airlines and Ashes”

  1. Elaine Poe Says:

    Very cogent observation, Rob. I’ve been thinking along these lines for several days now. Even the ATC providers are squealing because of no flights. No flights, no income for the privatized ATC providers.

    Are we still certain that privatizing ATC is a good thing? Mr. Poole keeps pointing at Canada, Australia, Europe and others as models he thinks we in the US should follow. I haven’t heard any commentary from him in the past few days.

    I hope people are paying attention: we know what happens when airplanes fly too close to ash clouds. Perhaps there is a relative distance that could keep aircraft and their passengers safe, but we don’t know what that distance is. In the meantime, when it comes to a decision of whether to keep passengers safe, or continue to rake in money, passenger safety is losing.

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    It really was amazing, I thought, that everyone seemed focused on how much cash the airlines were losing and the tens of thousands who were inconvenienced.

    There were a few pieces that confirmed that aircraft engines might well shut down in high concentrations of ash, but no one said anything like, better to be inconvenienced than dead.

  3. Chad Says:

    Another aspect to this is what an aircraft crew flying above the ash cloud should do if they encounter cabin decompression. Descend to 10,000 feet and fly through the thick of the ash cloud? Stay above and risk passenger/crew lives but keep the aircraft from entering the ash cloud? IMO, it’s better to not even be in a situation that would require one to make either of these choices.

  4. AMP Says:

    I too am shocked by the lack of data available from the engine manufacturers on this. If they can fire a couple of dozen frozen chickens during certification to simulate a bird strike, they surely can simulate volcanic ash in a lab.

    And while everyone is talking about the engines, the windows are just as vulnerable. Granted, you can land a 747 with 150 windows scratched beyond repair….

  5. Robert Mark Says:

    Excellent point. My guess is that volcanic ash issues are so rare, few organizations want to fund the research, at least until now.

    There is also the possible long-term engine damage issue to consider, even if the darned thing doesn’t shut down completely.

  6. Denis Campbell Says:

    What I loved was Willie Walsh sending long-haul flights across the Pond to make UK ATC blink. My recent Tweet: Did BA CEO Walsh load up planes, send them over UK airspace & win giant game of chicken with UK Govt “go divert ’em!” ?

  7. Jason Says:

    We are now getting satellite data that shows the cloud wasn’t nearly as big as first thought. With all of the satellites up there monitoring “global warming”, why didn’t they see this sooner?

    The answer is that this wasn’t about flight safety at all, but about attempting to raise awareness of “global warming”. They need to help fix the public perception since many people no longer believe the hoax.

  8. JetCheck on Airplane Geeks Podcast « Says:

    […] Airlines and Ashes […]

  9. Grant McHerron (aka Falcon124) Says:

    Don’t forget Speedbird 9, the British Airways 747 that lost all 4 engines in an ash cloud over Indonesia:

    Then there was a recent chat on with a gentleman from NASA’s DC-8 air analysis aircraft that flew through an ash cloud over Europe. While it never had any flame outs and was able to keep flying its missions & even return back to the USA later on, subsequent analysis of the engines found they were getting clogged with ash debris. They wound up taking all 4 engines off the plane for full tear down service at multi-million dollars of cost.

    Oh yeah, they flew through the cloud ‘cos it was not where it was predicted to be, even with the satellites, etc.

    So, the big questions to ask the airlines (in public, where their passengers can hear the results) are:

    1) Have you factored into your request to fly the possibility that the cloud may not be where you think it is?

    2) Are you willing to risk an aircraft flaming out all its engines? What possibility is there of it occurring? Is that more expensive than sitting on the ground & waiting it out?

    3) How much will it cost to repair the engines on your multiple aircraft if the ash cloud does turn out to have long-term effects after multiple flights through it? Is that more expensive than sitting on the ground & waiting it out?

    4) Will you & the other senior executives & board of directors being flying on these flights to show your trust in the safety of flying near ash clouds?

    Strange that no one asked these questions. Where’s the media at these days? :)

  10. John Doe Says:

    I am astonished at the level of scaremongering going on here. You would think that every time an aircraft left a European airport it was flying into clouds of ash so thick it would turn the day into night. Through-out the whole of this event the skies over the UK were totaly clear. Do you really think the CEO of any EU airline would put a 747 full of passengers into the sky if there was the hint of an accident? The ramifications of such an event would shut that airline down quicker than a snap of the fingers.
    Multiple flights were carried out by a number of operators to ensure it was safe to resume operations and in all the instances I am aware of nothing was found. A UK research aircraft was sent up and came back with ‘nothing found’. In fact the authorities tried to claim that it had obviously flown at the wrong level, to justify their decision to shut the airspace.

  11. Elaine Poe Says:

    “John Doe” said: “Do you really think the CEO of any EU airline would put a 747 full of passengers into the sky if there was the hint of an accident? The ramifications of such an event would shut that airline down quicker than a snap of the fingers.”

    IOW, do I really think that airline CEOs wait until risk factors reach absolute zero before launching their planes full of paying passengers? No, as a matter of fact, I don’t. I think that, every day, every airline, every flight gets balanced between risk factors (safety) and the ability for the airline to make a buck. I know this sounds like I’m against airline companies making money, and I’m not against that, really. But that’s not the point. It’s that, far too often, the balance between risk and revenue tips toward revenue, and passengers don’t even realize it.

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