EasyJet Plc has begun testing an ash-detection system that it’s developing to minimize disruption from volcanic dust by sampling air containing sand from the Sahara desert in order to simulate conditions after an eruption.
The Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector, or AVOID, developed by EasyJet’s partner Nicarnica Aviation, will be flown through the Saharan air layer over the Atlantic west of Morocco, the Luton, England-based carrier said in a statement.
The trial, using an Airbus SAS A340 jetliner, will seek to detect particles at a distance of 100 kilometers (62 miles), after which the next phase this year will be to fly the plane near an erupting volcano, with activity likely in Indonesia, Alaska, Japan or Iceland, according to the discount carrier.
European airline traffic slumped 12 percent in April 2010, exceeding the worst declines of the last recession, as ash from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano grounded 100,000 flights. Carriers lost at least $1.7 billion in the first six days of the event, according to industry figures, with further disruption occurring just over a year later when the Grimsvotn caldera in Iceland blew.
While the infra-red system EasyJet is testing dates from 1993 and airlines have long known that abrasive, silica-based material from volcanoes can clog engines and scar windshields, there was no interest from the industry until the 2010 eruption, according to the Norwegian Institute for Air Research.
Whereas the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration imposes a 120 mile-buffer zone around areas of visible ash, Eurocontrol, which governs Europe’s flight paths, based no-fly areas on models from the U.K. Met Office’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Center that assess dust density according to weather forecasts.
When Eyjafjallajökull erupted, authorities ordered pilots to avoid all ash. The threshold was later changed so that they could fly through plumes where 0.002 grams of ash was present per cubic meter of air, and that limit was later doubled, subject to an airline getting approval from the engine maker.
The AVOID equipment was tested on a Flight Design CT light sport aircraft at altitudes of as much as 12,000 feet above Mount Etna and Stromboli in Italy at the end of last year. The system should eventually function between 5,000 and 50,000 feet.