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Fact Sheet: Volcanic Ash

  • There are more than 500 active volcanoes in the world. On the 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. This volcanic ash system included nominated states providing Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers (VAAC). Their role is to monitor and advise of volcanic activity by promulgating volcano advisories and graphics to the meteorology offices, airlines, air navigation service providers and governments 
  • Airlines use the information provided by the VAACs to plan their flights in or near ash contaminated areas. The information provided may be used to mitigate the risk of flying in areas potentially affected by volcanic ash in accordance with Safety Risk Analysis procedures approved by the competent national aviation authority

2010 and 2011 European Volcano Eruptions

  • The eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland in April 2010 led to a closure of the majority of European airspace in Europe for six days and some temporary closures in different parts thereafter
    • The financial impact to airlines was estimated at $1.8 billion in lost revenue. 
    • Some 10 million passengers and 100,000 flights were affected during the six day period
  • By comparison, the 2011 eruption, which was smaller and had a more ‘favorable’ pressure system moving the resultant ash cloud, suffered only with the closure of airspace and closure of airports in northern Germany and Iceland for some hours
  • Much of this reduced impact was due directly to IATA’s action and the work in development by the International Volcanic Ash Task Force (IVATF), which was created to identify work that needs to be undertaken in the aviation MET domain, together with plans on how to progress them relying, to the extent possible, on existing bodies, such as the International Airways Volcano Watch Operations Group (IAVWOPSG). 
  • Significant events:
    1. The Volcanic Contamination Exercise was held in April 2011 and provided timely feedback ahead of the second European eruption
    2.The European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (EACCC)  was created in 2010, including cooperation/interface with the airlines
    3.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

  • The IVATF has formally concluded its work. IATA’s main priorities were recognized by the IVATF. 

    • 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
    • Airlines are now permitted to assess and operate in areas of volcanic ash provided the state CAA has accepted the use of risk assessment for volcanic ash as part of the Safety Management System 
    • States do not close their airspace, directly or by artificial means, except in the neighborhood of the volcanic crater where danger areas may be defined.
    • The basis for VAAC operations is to warn for ‘visible’ ash
    • The development of ash concentration charts ceases because ash detection capability has not matured sufficiently and because OEMs have moved away from previously agreed thresholds due to the lack of established engine threshold testing data. The IVATF adopted the concept of visible ash as being safer and more achievable
  • Other IATA priorities and initiatives include:

    • Improve the information available on the volcanic ash advisories making this the primary source of information and place the emphasis on observed, discernible ash
    • 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 is pivotal within the volcanic ash system
    • 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

  • Concept of operations under conditions of  volcanic ash is progressing  
  • 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  
  • Fundamental proposal: Flight operations in and around volcanoes should be considered as routine. This should be supported by procedures, similar to operating in special weather conditions and managed with specific maintenance measures
  • 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
  • Progressing the Single European Sky with respect to volcanic ash is limited

Updated: May 2014


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