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.

European Commission Pushes for Unified Skies

The European Commission has urged member states to better coordinate flight safety. A spokesperson for European Transport Commissioner Sim Kallas argued in Brussels that the crisis could have been better managed if new regulations approved by the member states in December had been implemented. "If we had a stonger coordination at the European level," Kallas's spokeswoman Helen Kearns told reporters, according to German news agency DPA, "the decision would have been taken more quickly."

The lack of coordination between the 27 national air traffic authorities created a serious problem. The "Single European Sky" initiative approved in December is supposed to eliminate the fragmentation of European airspace control. Under the plan, a European air traffic manager would be appointed who could intervene in a crisis like the one that emerged last week. But the new rules are being implemented in phases and will not be fully in place until January 2012.

But Kallas argues that the process needs to be expedited following this week's crisis. The European Commission is also demanding that the recommendations made by the European coordinator be binding. But that issue still hasn't been resolved with member states, the spokeswoman said. The regulations still leave decisions over whether to close airspace in the future to national authorities.

"Member states will always remain sovereign on closing their airspace ... for security and defense reasons," Luc Tytgat, the European Commission official in charge of the Single European Sky initiative, said according to DPA. But he added that there was a possibility of "penalties" for air traffic authorities that do not follow the advice of the EU air traffic manager.

Currently, coordination is managed by the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol), which was established in 1960. The organization coordinates airspace for 38 European countries, including the 27 EU member states, but it has no legal authority over its members.

Criticism of Blanket Flight Ban

ICAO Secretary-General Raymond Benjamin announced this week that the special UN organization would work on global standards for the concentration of ashes that could affect airplane engines. Benjamin said the ICAO would convene an expert panel that would determine at what concentrations volcanic ash becomes too dangerous for air travel.

The work is extremely important, too, given the doubts that have arisen about the appropriateness of this week's severe limits on air transport. "The mix was so thin that one must assume that there is no danger," said Lufthansa CEO Wolfgang Mayrhuber, whose airline also conducted its own test flights this week. With special permission, Lufthansa had flown dozens of jets since Saturday through the affected airspace -- at first empty and later with passengers. "Afterwards we didn't find a single ash particle in the (jet engine) turbines," a company spokesman said.

The company even dispatched its own mobile laboratory flight into the air at the peak of the emergency on Tuesday, although the results will first be available in a few days.

In Britain, airline executives also lambasted the airspace closures. "I don't believe it was necessary to impose a blanket ban on all UK airspace last Thursday," said British Airways CEO Willie Walsh.

Tremendous Losses for Airports

The flight ban cost Fraport, the operator of Germany's largest airport in Frankfurt, up to €15 million a day. But a spokesperson said that was just a rough first estimate.

And in Switzerland, Zürich's airport operator, Flughafen Zürich, is demanding state aid for revenues lost as a result of the volcanic eruption. Airport chief Thomas Kern said in an interview with the business magazine Finanz und Wirtschaft that his airport had lost around 2 million Swiss francs (around €1.4 million) per day. He said state aid was necessary because the airport's insurance is unlikely to cover economic damage wrought by the ash plume.

The airport's losses are attributed to the fact that 85 percent of its revenues are directly or indirectly associated with air travel -- including landing fees, shops and restaurants. After more than three days of closure, the Zurich airport reopened on Tuesday with a limited number of flights.

In Germany, the country's second-largest airline, Air Berlin, also hasn't ruled out the possibility of requesting state aid.

Assembly Lines Standing Still

Other parts of the economy beyond travel-related business have also been affected. Despite the resumption of flights on Wednesday, assembly lines at a number of factories belonging to German car-makers and auto parts suppliers remained at a standstill. Companies like Opel, Daimler and auto parts supplier Bosch had to suspend some production because they rely on air cargo to deliver parts and components.

A spokesperson for BMW said that production would likely first resume on Friday. On Wednesday, BMW halted production in plants in Munich, Dingolfing and Regensburg. A spokesman in Munich said production would also be suspended on Thursday because of a lack of electronic components that are usually flown in by air cargo. BMW said the assembly of 7,000 vehicles had been delayed by the air travel disruptions, but the company plans to compensate for lost time as quickly as possible.

At Daimler in Sindelfingen, some employees were sent home because of a lack of supplies, but a spokesperson said that logistics and deliveries were being swiftly organized and that the situation should improve quickly now that European airspace has been reopened.

The flight ban has also created problems for Bosch, the world's largest automobile components supplier. Bosch executive board member Bernd Bohr said the production of semiconductors at four plants had been suspended.

dsl - with wires