Travellers eyeing Iceland volcano eruption

Cayman travellers were keeping a close eye on European flights following the eruption of a volcano in Iceland. 

A fissure developed at Grímsvötn on Saturday, 21 May, spewing out tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere and forcing the cancellation of at least 500 flights in Europe on Tuesday, 24 May. 

Continental Airlines became the first to cancel a transatlantic flight when it pulled its service to Scotland on Tuesday. 

British Airways said that as a precaution it did not 
operate flights to and from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle on Tuesday. 

“We continue to monitor the situation and remain in close contact with the Civil Aviation Authority, National Air Traffic Services and the Met Office,” the airline said. “Customers on any cancelled flights will be able to claim a full refund or re-book onto alternative flights. 

“The safety of our customers is our paramount concern and we would never operate a flight unless we believed it was safe to do so,” said Marcia Erskine, spokesman for the carrier.  

Trans-Atlantic flights with tracks south of the ash path have been affected by ‘modest delays’, said Phillip Hammond, the British Secretary of State for Transport. He added that aircraft needed to avoid areas of high ash concentration and that there might be more delays later in the week. This could potentially have an effect on connections through London and gateways such as New York to Cayman. Passengers were advised to check with their airlines. 

Coarser ash 

The eruption is considered to be more powerful than 2010’s incident at Eyjafjallajökull, which caused widespread aviation chaos for trans-Atlantic routes and throughout Europe. 

Volcano expert James Ashworth said that the Grímsvötn volcano had experienced a regular cycle of eruption timings in recent years, so the latest activity was not entirely unexpected. 

“It could stop in a day or so or it could continue for weeks. It’s impossible to say. The last few have been a few days to a week or so in duration.  

“The eruption column decreased in height [Monday] compared to [Sunday] but it could always increase again – we simply can’t second-guess it,” he said. 

He added that because of coarser ash, the plume’s content may not cause as many problems as the Eyjafjallajökull incident, where fine ash could have entered aeroplane engines before crystallising and leading to operational failure.  

“The ash from Eyjafjallajökull was quite unusually fine, which is why it posed such a problem,” Mr. Ashworth said. “I believe this was partly to do with the water-lava interaction, but mainly due to the volatile content of the magma – predominantly water vapour – causing it to simply be quite an explosive eruption. Grímsvötn typically produces basaltic eruptions, I believe, which tend to be less explosive,” he said. 

The volcano’s previous eruption occurred in 2004 and lasted for a week. 

Crisis coordination 

Following the eruption of the volcano, the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell was activated. The body was set up to manage any situations similar to the 2010 Icelandic eruptions. 

During the meeting on Monday, 23 May, the participants, including the United States, the European Commission, Eurocontrol, the European Aviation Safety Agency, air navigation service providers, airlines and airport associations, shared information on the current situation in European airspace as well as on its possible evolution. They agreed on a number of recommendations for managing the potential impact on European airspace while respecting established safety levels. 

Some airlines have criticised the UK’s approach, with budget carrier Ryanair saying it encountered no problems on a test flight into the ‘red zone’. However, later on Tuesday it cancelled all its flights to Scotland. 

The International Air Transport Association said that while safety was the top priority, the crisis management structure had not been formally coordinated, leaving passengers vulnerable to fragmented decision making. 

Giovanni Bisignani of the association criticised the UK government for the unavailability of the country’s test aircraft. 

“It is astonishing and unacceptable that Her Majesty’s Government cashes 3.5 billon pounds each year in Air Passenger Duty but is incapable of using a small portion of that revenue to purchase another Cessna to use as a back-up aircraft.  

“I ask please that you ensure that all possible efforts are made to get the existing aircraft operational in the shortest possible time.”