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IATA erupts over handling of airspace closure

Airlines blame European government for 'lack of leadership'
IATA director general & CEO Giovanni Bisignani
IATA director general & CEO Giovanni Bisignani

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The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has sharply criticised European governments for their lack of leadership in handling airspace restrictions in light of the Icelandic volcano eruption and urged a re-think of the decision-making process.

Air travel chaos ensued when a massive plume of volcanic ash filled Europe’s skies on April 15. The situation appeared to be improving five days later but travellers’ hopes were soon dashed as a new eruption of the volcano occurred on April 20.

“We are far enough into this crisis to express our dissatisfaction on how governments have managed it—with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership. This crisis is costing airlines at least US$200 million a day in lost revenues and the European economy is suffering billions of dollars in lost business. In the face of such dire economic consequences, it is incredible that Europe’s transport ministers have taken five days to organise a teleconference,” said IATA director general and CEO Giovanni Bisignani.

“Governments must place greater urgency and focus on how and when we can safely re-open Europe’s skies. This means decisions based on risk-management, facts and utilising operational procedures that maintain safety,” said Bisignani.

IATA criticised Europe’s unique methodology of closing airspace based on theoretical modeling of the ash cloud.

“This means that governments have not taken their responsibility to make clear decisions based on facts. Instead, it has been the air navigation service providers who announced that they would not provide service. And these decisions have been taken without adequately consulting the airlines. This is not an acceptable system particularly when the consequences for safety and the economy are so large,” said Bisignani.

“Safety is our top priority. Airlines will not fly if it is not safe. I have consulted our member airlines that normally operate in the affected airspace. They report missed opportunities to fly safely. The European system results in blanket closures of airspace. I challenge governments to agree on ways to flexibly re-open airspace. Risk assessments should be able to help us re-open certain corridors, if not entire airspaces,” Bisignani added.

Not only that, the ongoing natural disaster - which forced the European authorities to begin closing down European airspace on April 15 – has had a severe affect on all Middle East airlines.

On the fifth day of cancellations (April 19) - at the height of the airspace closures - some 20% of Emirates' fleet - or 30 aircraft - remained on the ground. The disruption has cost the airline somewhere in the region of US$10 million a day as Emirates continued to provide hotel accommodation in Dubai for thousands of passengers who were in transit when the disruption began.

To date, over 250 Emirates' flights had been cancelled and more than 80,000 passengers had been impacted by the ongoing disruption.

In a statement, Emirates said: “It's important to understand that this is a complex situation involving tens of thousands of people and becomes more complicated as the days go by. We appreciate how difficult it is for everyone affected.”
Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways also said its services to the UK, Ireland and some European destinations had been cancelled “until further notice” while other Gulf-based airlines have also been impacted by the continuing ash cloud saga.

Bahrain's Gulf Air has been handing out free tickets to stranded passengers as a gesture of goodwill.

The ticket is of equal value to the original ticket held by the passenger and is for future use, CEO Samer Majali said.

Bahrain's national carrier said around 32 flights have been cancelled since April 15 when many UK and European airports were forced to close.

Majali added: "This is a very unusual situation, which is beyond our control and we fully understand how frustrating it is for our passengers.

"We are proactively doing everything that is possible to ensure our affected passengers are comfortable and keep them updated on the latest information via as many communication channels as possible."

He said the airline had set up an emergency task force team which is meeting passengers stranded in Bahrain at their hotels and explaining the options as they wait for European airspace to reopen.

Oman Air confirmed that its flights to the UK, France, and Germany had been cancelled since April 15 too, after the air traffic control authorities in each of those countries closed their airspace.

“We are closely monitoring the situation and hope to be returning to normal conditions as soon as possible," stated an Oman Air spokesperson.

To assist governments in assessing risk, airlines such as Lufthansa and KLM have conducted successful test flights in several European countries. IATA said the results had not shown any irregularities or safety issues and added that the scale of airspace closures currently seen in Europe is unprecedented.

“We have seen volcanic activity in many parts of the world but rarely has it resulted in airspace closures—and never at this scale. When Mount St. Helens erupted in the US in 1980, we did not see large scale disruptions, because the decisions to open or close airspace were risk managed with no compromise on safety,” said Bisignani.

The IATA director general called for an urgent meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the specialised agency of the UN, to define government responsibility for the decisions to open or close airspace in a coordinated and effective way based on real data and special operating procedures.

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