Ash Shuts German Airports as BA Applies to Fly in ‘Red Zone’

Lufthansa Cancels 150 Flights, Volcano Closes Airports
Deutsche Lufthansa AG canceled 150 flights to cities in northern Germany. Photographer: Hannelore Foerster/Bloomberg

Volcanic dust from Iceland grounded flights in northern Germany as British Airways joined Ryanair Holdings Plc in arguing for a relaxation of rules that ban all operations in areas forecast to have the highest density of ash.

Airports in Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg were closed this morning as ash from the Grimsvotn volcano drifted eastward, leading to the cancellation of at least 450 flights, according to Eurocontrol, which oversees air traffic in the region. Terminals in the cities reopened as conditions eased.

Willie Walsh, chief executive officer of British Airways parent International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, told Bloomberg News that a test flight through skies forecast to have high ash concentrations had revealed no dust. BA has therefore applied to fly in previously banned “red zones” when multiple data sources suggest predictive maps aren’t accurate, he said.

“We want to fly in areas where volcanic ash doesn’t exist,” Walsh said in an interview. “Decisions have been taken based on a predictive model which says that at some time in a six-hour period at some point in the red zone volcanic ash may exist. We think you can go to a much more detailed level of analysis.”

U.K. Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said Britain will continue to take a “precautionary approach,” with passenger and aircraft safety paramount. Still, France’s aviation regulator said today that it is now taking account of data other than map forecasts, though ash hasn’t actually reached the country.

Lufthansa Impact

British Airways, United Continental Holdings Inc. and Air France-KLM Group were among carriers that scrapped more than 500 flights in Scotland and northern England yesterday. Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Germany’s No. 1 airline, halted at least 150 trips today, spokesman Patrick Meschenmoser said. Some services in Nordic countries were also grounded and early morning departures from the U.K. were affected where planes were out of position.

“It is expected that ash-cloud coverage will dissipate overnight,” Eurocontrol said in a statement. “Tomorrow, we do not expect any significant impact on European airspace.”

Predictive maps from the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in London showed an area of dense dust covering north Germany below 20,000 feet at midday before clearing by 6 p.m., after which time the red zone is restricted to Arctic regions.

Closure Costs

Dust from another Icelandic volcano closed European airspace for six days last year, halting 100,000 flights at a cost of $1.7 billion, the International Air Transport Association estimates. While limits on flying have since been relaxed, predicted ash densities from the Grimsvotn volcano are such that some areas of airspace have still been closed.

Copenhagen airport, the biggest Nordic hub, will have a few cancelations today, spokesman Soeren H. Nielsen said, while Oslo airport is operating as normal and “the prognosis is good,” according to spokeswoman Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen. SAS Group, Scandinavia’s No. 1 airline, said it expects only occasional disruption after halting about 20 flights over three days.

IAG CEO Walsh said today that British Airways has applied to the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority to extend operations based on a test flight last night using an Airbus SAS A320 plane.

Video Checks

The twin-engine aircraft travelled through the so-called red zone of anticipated dense ash over Scotland in a 45-minute flight from 7 p.m., following which no ash was found even after inspections with a video boroscope inserted into an engine and checks on filters that had been replaced beforehand, Walsh said.

While the Grimsvotn blast is easing, with its “death certificate” likely to be issued by the weekend, according to Bjorn Oddsson, a geologist with the Institute of Earth Sciences at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, Walsh said that the system must be refined to better cope with any future eruptions.

“I can’t predict what the volcano will do, but we are working with the regulators to ensure that if we see further volcanic activity we can continue to operate where it is safe,” he said on Bloomberg Television’s The Pulse with Maryam Nemazee.

IAG shares rose 1.5 percent in London trading today after declining almost 7 percent over the previous two days as the Icelandic ash cloud was blown southeast toward Europe.

Ryanair Holdings Plc, Europe’s biggest discount carrier, said yesterday there was “no basis” for cancellations after finding no evidence of ash in a test flight through skies that the CAA and U.K. Met Office said would have a high density. The plane’s airframe, wings and engines were dust free, it said.

The CAA collaborated on the British Airways flight, which had added to understanding of “what is out there and what risks there are,” spokesman Richard Taylor said by telephone, while declining to elaborate on BA’s new safety-case application.

‘Not Helpful’

Ryanair’s flight was organized independently and didn’t properly traverse the red zone, Taylor said. U.K. minister Hammond, speaking on Sky TV, said the Irish carrier’s action was “not at all helpful” and that the CAA “won’t be bullied” into dropping its safety-first approach.

Carriers are intervening even after Eurocontrol convened the European Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell, established after last year’s eruption in order to facilitate communication between airlines and regulators during emergencies. Ash presents a “very real risk,” to planes, Brian Flynn, Eurocontrol’s operations chief, said yesterday.

France’s civil aviation authority, the DGAC, is meanwhile already applying an approach mandated by the European Aviation Safety Agency this week and based on a system devised by the International Civil Aviation Organization after the 2010 event, said Florence Rousse, its director of civil aviation safety.

Maintenance Crews

The mechanism allows for the input of real data on the presence of ash, such as feedback from engine-maintenance crews, in addition to the predictions from weather forecasters and vulcanologists, Rousse today said in an interview in Paris.

While the volume of dust spewed from the volcano initially made airspace closures inevitable, “with each day that passes the ash cloud drifts further off the computer model,” she said.

Also, in addition to ash density, “the risk to engines depends on several other factors including the length of time a plane spends in the cloud,” she said.

The Grimsvotn eruption under Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajokull, is abating, the University of Iceland’s Oddsson said yesterday, with the height of the ash plume as low as 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) compared with an initial 20 kilometers.

Johanna Sigurdardottir, Iceland’s prime minister, said today that “the worst is over” and that problems arising in other countries from the blast “should be resolved quickly.”

A “puff” from the volcano that last night shot 5 kilometers into the air is thought to have been steam, not ash, the Iceland Civil Protection Department said in a separate statement, adding that “more powerful blows of ash plume can’t be ruled out.”

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