Alaska’s lessons for European air traffic control

Alaska.jpgSomewhere at the back of the blog’s mind is the memory of a major 1980 eruption by Mt St Helens in Washington State, NW USA.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the lessons learnt by Alaska Airlines from this eruption could have avoided the closure of Europe’s airspace last week, if they had been picked up by the relevant authorities.
Mt St Helens is just 35 miles from Alaska Airlines’ base in Seattle. And the airline encounters ash every couple of years, from other volcanoes in Alaska itself. Its hard-learnt lessons on how to cope seem to be:
• Planes cannot take off, fly or land in ash
• But it is perfectly possible to find safe flight paths
• The rule is you have to be at least 35 miles (56 km) from the ash
• A combination of computer modelling and in-flight observations can predict safe paths
So why did we all endure 6 days of chaos? According to Giovanni Bisignani, CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), because governments “based decisions to close airspace on theoretical models with no data or tests“. IATA claims that “had tests been run earlier in the crisis, large-scale flight operations could have continued“.

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