Anger Mounts over Volcano Crisis Response

Across the continent, airports are operating and the airlines are flying again, but the complete halt to air transportation in Europe over the past week -- the first such instance in history, with more than 100,000 flight cancellations -- will be the subject of heated debate in the coming weeks and months.

The industry estimates that the cost of the closure of European airspace totalled $1.7 billion (around €1.3 billion). According to estimates by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the flight ban paralyzed, at least for a time, around 29 percent of all global flights. Over the weekend alone, $400 million a day in revenues were lost. The Association of European Airlines (AEA) is estimating total losses at close to $1 billion.

IATA President Giovanni Bisignani has sharply criticized the European Union for its lack of leadership in the crisis. "They have succeeded with the euro and with Schengen (Europe's open borders treaty)," he said on Wednesday in Berlin. Europe even came to an agreement on aid for Greece, he added. But the EU still hasn't succeeded in reaching a unified deal on air travel, where airspace decisions are still the dominion of individual member states, he said.

In fact, European airspace is to a large degree still representative of the small-state mentality that prevailed in Europe a century ago. For decades, governments have unsuccessfully sought to reach agreements on unified controls, independent of borders, but they have never gotten past the talking stage. Instead, last week, each state had to independently interpret the guidelines from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which were created after dangerous flight incidents involving volcanic ash in the 1980s. "They state: When there's volcanic ash in the air, airplanes have to stay on the ground," Bisignani said, summarizing the guidelines.

Five Days for an EU Response

Despite the seeming absoluteness of these rules, numerous volcanic eruptions have occured around the world since the 1980s and countries and airlines have been able to navigate the problems without disrupting air travel across an entire continent. In the United States, for example, special planes are dispatched with measuring equipment to determine the precise location of an ash plume. Once its scope has been determined, airspace is only closed in directly affected areas where the density of the ash justifies the decision.

Outside the banned area, flights can still take place if the pilots assume responsibility for them. "I hope Europe's governments will move forward with great urgency," so that the system here can function similarly, the IATA president said.

And even after an official government declaration by German Transport Minister Peter Ramsauer on Wednesday, Bisignani's question of why it took five days before EU transport ministers managed to organize a conference call -- days in which airlines around the world lost $1 billion -- remained unanswered. It also remained unclear why the 27 EU member states were unable to coordinate and quickly dispatch research planes to collect accurate data about the volcanic ash plume. In some instances, research planes weren't even equipped with the measurement tools needed and they first had to be upgraded.

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