Anger Mounts over Volcano Crisis Response

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.

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