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Brussels, 26 May 2011

Volcano Grimsvötn: how is the European response different to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption last year? Frequently Asked Questions

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in April 2010, causing prolonged closure of European airspace. 100,000 flights were cancelled during the volcanic ash crisis in April 2010, with over 10 million people affected. 8,200 flights were cancelled on the first day of the crisis alone.

At that time, a unique combination of 3 factors coming together resulted in an almost complete lock-down of European airspace:

  • Severe and prolonged volcanic disruption;

  • Weather conditions that meant the ash cloud remained over Europe; and

  • Volcanic Ash risk management guidance for Europe based on a strict precautionary principle.

The situation for the Grimsvötn volcano has been very different.

This is partially due to the different nature of the Grimsvötn volcano as well as different weather conditions. But to a much greater extent it is due to the more precise risk assessment procedures that have been put in place in Europe – allowing for a much more graduated response and minimising closure of European airspace. The practical effect of this is the limited number of cancellations compared to last year's situation.

Changes in flights cancelled:

In the first three days, (15-17 April 2010) at the height of the Eyjafjallajökull crisis last year, the number of flights that were cancelled was 42,600.

  • 15 April 2010: 8,200 flights cancelled

  • 16 April 2010: 17,200 flights cancelled

  • 17 April 2010:17,200 flights cancelled

This compares to 900 flights cancelled for the first three days of this Grimsvötn

crisis (23, 24,25 May 2011) out of a total of 90,000 expected flights.

What has changed? What are the new European procedures for volcanic ash?

Europe is now equipped to respond to an ash crisis with a graduated rather than a one size fits all approach.

Two very concrete changes were made, in particular, a difference in managing the impact of the Grimsvötn eruption.

  • The creation of a new EU aviation crisis cell, to manage a crisis in real time

  • The new European guidelines for managing volcanic ash (for Member States and airlines)

What is the European Crisis cell? How does it work?

Following the disruption caused by the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010, Vice President Siim Kallas proposed to Transport Ministers to fast track the establishment of a European Crisis Co-ordination cell (EACCC). With Ministerial backing this was taken forwards, and the EU crisis cell was formally established in May 2010.

The new European Crisis Cell (EACCC) has provided a very efficient a structure for "hands on" effective co-ordination of a crisis in real time. It can meet on a daily basis or more often if necessary.

The crisis cell constitutes the central European entity that can facilitate and co-ordinate collaborative decision making, whereby responses can be decided quickly and problems can be solved in real time as they emerge.

The EU Crisis cell is co-chaired by the European Commission and EuroControl. They can, according to the circumstances, trigger the establishment of the cell. The make up of the cell is flexible to allow it to adapt to different situations, but the core group is European Commission, Eurocontrol, European Aviation Safety Agency, EU Presidency as well as representatives of Airlines, Air Navigation Service Providers (ANSPs) and airports.

The membership can be supplemented according to the nature of the crisis. In the case of the Grimsvötn volcano it also included representatives from national regulators and National Civil Aviation Authorities (NSAs), as well as MET offices.

Vice President Kallas asked for the crisis cell to be activated on Sunday 22nd May. The Cell met formally on Monday 23rd May and each day since.

2. What are the new European guidelines for volcanic ash?

Since the volcanic eruption in April 2010, the European Guidance for volcanic ash disruption has been completely rewritten.

In response to decisions taken by the European Commission and EU Transport Ministers in April and May 2010, the ICAO Volcanic Ash Contingency Plan for Europe has been revised (final adoption December 2010), supplemented by the elaboration of new operational guidelines for the 'Management of Flight Operations with Known or Forecast Volcanic Cloud Contamination'.)

On Monday 23rd May, the EU Crisis cell agreed to issue this operational guidance to EU Member States on how to implement the revised guidance in their response to this crisis.

In practice, the new European approach provides a graduated response to ash, not one size fits all.

  • Airlines submit safety risk assessments for their operations.

  • Member State Safety Authorities can then give permission (or not) to operate, based on the safety risk assessments submitted.

Guiding the work of airlines and Member States, are the maps produced by Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) in London, supplemented by additional information from other sources as appropriate. The different risk threshold zones are clearly displayed on the maps showing: high ash density areas (red zone above 4 mg ash/ cubic metre), medium ash density areas (grey zone between 2-4 mg ash/ per cubic metre) and low ash density areas (blue zone below 2 mg ash/cubic metre) density areas of ash concentration.

What effect do the new rules have in practice?

One year ago, even in blue zones with a very low ash density, Member States shut airspace, in accordance with the strict precautionary principle set out in the International guidance at the time.

Under the new rules, Member States have a much more precise tool available to them to assess risk. They are able to authorise large numbers of flights – with correct safety risk assessments from airlines – in low density blue zones, as well as in many medium density grey zones. There is also a possibility to authorise flights even in high density (red zones) although this was not the case so far during this crisis.

The end result is that, whilst fully respecting safety requirements, airspace closures have been minimised during this crisis. To give some idea of the scale of the difference, during the first crisis, 8,000 flights were cancelled. During the first two days of the Grimsvötn crisis 500 flights were cancelled.

What happens next?

The EU Crisis Co-ordination Cell will continue to meet for as long as the crisis requires it. Vice President Kallas has had contacts with the Hungarian Presidency and stands ready to call a Ministerial Meeting should the situation require it.

Looking ahead, Vice President Kallas is due to report to Transport Ministers meeting in Brussels in June on the progress in revising volcanic ash management. The Vice President will present the experience gained during this crisis, the progress made as well as further lessons learnt and possible further steps needed.

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