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The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull was a wake-up call for change

By Giovanni Bisignani Director General and CEO, IATA

At the operational and technical level, we quickly discovered that we are ill equipped to deal with such situations. In April, IATA joined with ICAO in a task force that is fast-tracking research to agree on specific technical standards for engine tolerance to volcanic ash. We are urging Europe to invest in enough test aircraft to efficiently monitor ash concentrations across the continent.

Policy gaps will be harder to fill. Europe’s rules for compensation and care for flight irregularities placed an unfair burden on airlines. In this extraordinary event, insurance companies claimed force majeure. Trains or buses would not face such a liability but the European Commission was adamant that its badly drafted regulations for airlines should be applied. An urgent rethink is needed.

We also saw a clear demonstration of the inefficiency of Europe’s divided skies. The uncoordinated response of Europe’s governments to the ash crisis highlighted what the industry has been saying for decades—Europe’s governments must make the Single European Sky (SES) a reality.

The ash crisis spurred some long-awaited action. Within days, Europe’s transport ministers committed to an accelerated program for some components of the SES. For example, we expect a network manager to be in place by the end of the year, and a fast-track for the implementation of functional airspace blocks.

The commitment is welcome but what we need is a date for the complete SES, not incremental progress on the stages of a process that started years ago.
 
We must follow developments closely to ensure that we achieve a true and efficient SES. It must improve Europe’s competitiveness by cutting at least $6 billion in costs with reduced delays and more efficient routings. It must improve environmental performance with a 16 million metric ton reduction in carbon emissions.

Even with the advantage of a few weeks’ perspective, fundamental questions remain about the relationship between governments and the industry.

Aviation drives economies. It supports $3.5 trillion in economic activity annually and 32 million jobs. When it was disrupted for six days in Europe, 100,000 flights were cancelled and $1.7 billion in industry revenue was lost.

More than that, 10 million people were unable to travel. Family gatherings were cancelled, heads of state stranded, conferences postponed and meetings foregone. Flowers from Kenya did not reach their markets. Australian oysters did not reach European kitchens. German factories did not have the parts to assemble their products. The cost to the economy of our industry not operating is still being calculated.

Never before has the importance of the aviation industry been so vividly demonstrated. The shutdown was on the front page of every newspaper and at the top of every newscast.

For aviation, the ash crisis was a lobbying moment par excellence. We must not let governments forget. Decisions made in crisis and policy rethinks in the aftermath of disasters are not the leadership that we need. Aviation should not be policy afterthought. It should be on the agenda of every head of state.
As we look to the future, beyond the recent recession, we face the enormous challenge of rebuilding the industry on a new and more resilient foundation. Eyjafjallajökull is a reminder to governments everywhere that we need proactive policy aligned with a vision for a global industry that is even safer, more environmentally responsible and sustainably profitable.

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