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Fact Sheet: Volcanic Ash

  • There are more than 500 active volcanoes in the world. On average 12 eruptions per year can be expected globally, in some instances lasting up to several weeks. (Data is estimated based on number of volcanic eruptions in the last 10 years)
  • Volcanic ash is made up predominantly of silicates with a melting temperature of 1,100°C which is below the operating temperature of modern commercial jet engines of about 1,400 °C.
  • Examples of previous volcanic eruptions that significantly impacted airline operations and resulted in airport closures:
    • 1980 - Mt. St. Helens, USA
    • 1982 - Galungugung, Indonesia
    • 1989 - Mt. Redoubt, USA
    • 1991 - Mt. Pinatubo, Philippines
    • 1997 - Mt. Popocatepetl, Mexico
    • 2010 - Mt. Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland
    • 2011 - Puyehue-Cordón Caulle, Chile
    • 2011 - Mt. Grimsvotn, Iceland
    • 2013 - Mt. Etna, Sicily
    • 2013 - Mt. Sinabung, Indonesia
    • In recent years there have been several events within the Pacific region which have caused minor disruption to aviation
  • While there have been some serious incidents, there has been no aircraft accident, injury or loss of life as a result of a volcanic ash encounter. However, some eruptions have resulted in major negative financial impact to aviation, related (or ancillary) services, and passengers. 
  • The International Airways Volcanic Watch was established by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) as a result of the serious encounters that occurred during the 1980s. ICAO set up nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers (VAAC) whose role is to monitor and advise of volcanic activity by promulgating volcano advisories and graphics to the regional meteorology offices for use by the airlines, air navigation service providers and governments.
  • Airlines use the information provided by the VAACs and other sources of information to plan their flights to avoid ash contaminated areas. The information provided is used in each airline’s regulatory approved Safety Risk Analysis procedures to mitigate the risk of flying in areas that may potentially be affected by volcanic ash. This is particularly so for flights under instrument flight rules and at night near areas of associated volcanic activity.
  • As demonstrated in 2010, the consequence of a major volcanic eruption can cause significant disruption to aviation with the associated financial and social impact to airlines, business and governments.
  • Significant events:
    • The Volcanic Contamination Exercise was held in April 2011 and provided timely feedback ahead of the second European eruption
    • The European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC)  was created in 2010, including cooperation/interface with the airlines
    • Generally, apart from the closure of northern German airspace and airspace in Iceland, operational decisions were delegated to the airlines
  • In direct cooperation with ICAO and through involvement in the work of the Airworthiness sub-group of the IVATF, ICAO Document 9974 Flight Safety and Volcanic Ash was published in 2012. This document provides guidance for states in recommending practices to their operators and regulatory authorities where volcanic ash contamination may be a hazard for flight operations. It was co-signed by seven industry bodies, including IATA
  • The Volcanic Ash Challenge Team (VACT) met in September 2011 where:
    • The majority of attendees agreed not to close airspace except for reasons of national security
    • Support was received for the joint industry document: Flight Safety and Volcanic Ash
    • The need for closer cooperation between the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations, the International Airways Volcano Watch Ops Group and IATA member airlines was recognized
    • There was agreement on the need for a harmonized VAAC output

Current Status

  • PANS ATM was revised and took effect in November 2014 giving implicit instructions that operators could treat volcanic ash similar to any other meteorological threat
  • IATA retains involvement with the IAVW Ops Group which undertakes regular meetings. This group is being elevated to a Panel under the current ICAO reorganization
  • The IVATF has formally concluded its work with a number of outstanding actions to be undertaken as a result of the recommendations of the work of the Task Force
  • ICAO has tasked its own Flight Operations Panel to undertake this work; IATA is a part of the panel and a contributor to the activities
    • The immediate eruption is acknowledged as being the most dangerous period for aircraft with recommendations applicable to this phase included in Doc. 9974 
    • Volcanic ash should be treated similarly to any other significant meteorological hazard
    • By means of the use of risk assessment, airlines are now able to operate in areas which they previously did not have access to 
    • States are encouraged not to close their airspace, directly or by artificial means, except within the proximity of the volcanic crater where danger areas may be defined.
    • The basis for VAAC operations is to warn of ‘visible’ ash
    • ICAO is now addressing the inconsistencies that have been noted between its documents and guidance materials to bring them into alignment. This also includes regional variations in recommended practices. This will then provide airlines with better and consistent pre-flight and in-flight guidance, further enhancing the risk analysis process.

Other IATA priorities and initiatives

With the cooperation of the VAACs, devise guidance to improve and standardize the information available from volcanic ash advisories with an emphasis on accurately indicating observed or discernible ash along with probabilities indicating the accuracy of the information provided. 

  • Reduce information overload and conflict by increasing the importance of the volcanic ash advisories
  • Define the role of the volcanic ash observatories in reporting activity and plume source parameters
    Introduce the global air traffic management Contingency Plan template which will now be merged into regional plans by the Planning and Implementation Regional Groups
  • VAAC Best Practices workshops. This initiative sponsored by IATA was a direct result of airlines highlighting the significant inconsistencies in VAAC capability, practices and product information. This meeting was the first time that all nine VAACs had been together to discuss their capabilities, resources, policies, etc. The third VAAC Best Practices workshop was held in Indonesia, March 2013.

Ongoing work and Challenges

  • Producing a guide to Best Practices for all VAACs to deliver harmonized output for all VAACs
  • Convening the IATA Flight Operations Support Task Force twice a year allows for the opportunity to discuss issues pertaining to Volcanic Ash and other significant meteorological factors affecting flight operations. Resulting working papers are written in cooperation with ICAO, the World Area Forecast Centers (WAFCs: located in the UK and the US), airlines and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to improve aviation meteorological standards and practices  
  • Limited observations of active volcanoes remains a major concern in some parts of the world. Active watch will help to reduce the notification time from start of eruption and minimize the possibility of an accidental volcanic ash encounter
    Not all States are harmonized in their approach with some still following a policy of airspace closures

December 2014

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