European officials may ease fly-zone rules near volcano ash

By Slobodan Lekic
Associated Press / May 13, 2010

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BRUSSELS — The European air safety proposed new procedures yesterday that would drastically shrink the no-fly zone around volcanic ash particles — a move that should decrease future airspace closures and travel delays.

Daniel Hoeltgen, spokesman for the European aviation safety agency, said the solution adopts the US practice of imposing a 120-mile no-fly buffer zone for all aircraft in the vicinity of any visible ash plume. This no-fly zone is hundreds of miles smaller than the one used in Europe.

Last month, a large part of European airspace was closed for five days as ash from the Icelandic volcano drifted over northern and western parts of the continent. It forced the cancellation of 100,000 flights, stranded millions, and caused losses of more than $2 billion to the airlines.

Many airlines criticized the European airspace closures as an unnecessary overreaction.

Flying directly through the plume of a volcanic eruption can damage jet engines, block a plane’s sensor instruments, and cause other damage. But there is scant evidence that abrasive volcanic ash particles cause damage if they are dispersed by wind.

Nevertheless, the US and European systems for flying near ash differ fundamentally.

European aviation authorities have three zones — a vast no-fly belt stretching along the area where winds have spread the ash, a large additional buffer area where flying is also forbidden, and a clear-air part where aircraft can fly normally.

This method caused the blanket closure of almost all European airspace when winds carried ash from Iceland eastward over the continent in April.

In contrast, flying is forbidden in the United States only in the area where the plume is densest and in a 120-mile buffer zone.

“I can confirm that the agency has been discussing a new solution to the renewed threat of airspace closures due to the volcanic ash cloud,’’ Hoeltgen said.

The US Federal Aviation Administration, the European Commission, airlines, and aviation authorities have been involved in the talks, he said. The change still has to be approved by the EU 27 national aviation regulators and the European Commission.

Eurocontrol, the continent’s air safety management agency, said small areas of high ash concentration at lower altitudes caused difficulties yesterday for trans-Atlantic flights.