The eruption of Mt Etna on Saturday 26 October 2013 which briefly closed airpsace over Italy is, thankfully, not unexpected in aviation circles. An air traffic management contingency is in place, created by the European/North Atlantic office of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). There are also regular international volcanic ash exercises conducted to test the contingency plan.
This plan, and relevant ICAO guidelines and principles on how various aviation stakeholders should deal with volcanic ash in Europe and elsewhere have significantly evolved since the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland.
Prior to the 2010 Icelandic eruption, guidance to nations and airlines in relation to volcanic ash was simple - avoid it. Aircraft simply flew around if they could. However, an unforeseen implication of this risk averse mindset was that nations, who each are in total legal control of access to their airspace meant that multiple neighbouring nations closed off blocks of airspace. This resulted in aircraft not being able to circumnavigate the swiftly moving thick ash cloud, and anger from airlines and passengers as delays and cancellations ensued.
The ICAO has, since 2010, reviewed and challenged this risk averse mindset and moved to a risk management strategy which places, as far as possible, the decision on whether airlines choose to fly in or near volcanic ash clouds, with the airlines themselves. In 2012 ICAO published a guideline which effectively permits airlines to make a risk management decision on flight near ash themselves, with State air safety regulators serving as an expert oversight mechanism for those airlines ('Flight safety and Volcanic Ash - risk management of flight operations with known or forecast volcanic ash contamination", ICAO Doc 9974). Senior officers in Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority and Bureau of Meteorology contributed to the production of this collaborative international industry/regulator document.
Technological advances in volcanic ash detection, computerised ash movement forecasting and these new risk management guidelines have meant that the unprecedented airspace closures which featured in 2010 in Europe are not likely to be repeated.
The eruption of Mt Etna on Saturday comes coincidentally two days before expert French atmospheric scientist Fred Prata tests a cutting edge infrared camera volcanic ash detection device on a jet which will be flown into an artifical ash cloud formed from ash from iceland - the Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector (AVOID). The tests will take place on 28 October 2013 probably over the Bay of Biscay. It is not known whether the eruption of Mt Etna will impact on the proposed tests.
The situation of volcanic ash avoidance demonstrates the interaction of modern international aviation regulation combining with technical advances to allow those with the most technical and safety experience and knowledge to make principal air safety related flight decisions - the airlines themselves.
It is important, however, that ICAO has ensured that national air safety regulators retain some oversight of the regime, as no system can guarantee safety in isolation.
A shift in thinking to modern considerations of safety risk management is demonstrated specifically in the example of volcanic ash, but is part of a broader move to have air safety regulators in every country recognise and implement the values behind safety management to manage aviation risks proactively.
A new ICAO Annex (19), the first in over 30 years, entitled "Safety Management" will come into force for all ICAO-member nations on 14 November 2013 and embodies these principles across all areas of commercial aircraft operation and regulatory oversight.
More information is available on volcanic ash management for civil aviation in:
Wheeler, J (2011), "ICAO Guidance on Volcanic Ash: From Risk Aversion to Risk Management", Annals of Air and Space Law, McGill University Institute of Air and Space Law.
Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: October 27, 2013.