Airlines are on alert as one of Iceland’s biggest volcanoes rumbles to life, threatening ash clouds that could force flight cancellations across the North Atlantic, the busiest international travel market.
Air France, Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Delta Air Lines Inc. are among carriers watching Bardarbunga volcano for an eruption, the latest in a series of actual or potential hazards to interfere with commercial air routes. Iceland’s Civil Protection Agency began evacuating the area north of the volcano yesterday.
The seismic activity raised concern that airlines may face a repeat of the 2010 disruptions when a cloud belched from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano forced carriers to erase more than 100,000 flights and caused about $1.7 billion in lost revenue. Ash is a menace to jetliners because the glass-like particles can damage engines by melting and congealing.
“There is still no sign of this intrusion being on its way to the surface,” said Martin Hensch, a seismologist at the Icelandic Met Office. “It’s still impossible to say whether or not the volcano will erupt, due to the simple fact that we can’t predict what the developments in the next hours or days will be.”
While regional air-traffic manager Eurocontrol said the volcano isn’t affecting aviation now, the “seismic swarm” of earthquakes recorded around the caldera’s rim this week is the largest seen since the last eruption, in 1996, according to the website of FutureVolc, a European safety monitor. Iceland increased the eruption risk to “orange,” the second-highest level, on Aug. 18.
“If the volcano erupts -- which we don’t know -- how explosive or non-explosive the eruption is depends entirely on where the magma reaches the surface,” said Melissa Anne Pfeffer, atmospheric volcanologist at the Icelandic Met Office.
Bardarbunga lies beneath Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest glacier. Molten rock bubbling up under the icecap would create “a more explosive eruption,” with the mix of high heat and a sudden meltdown of frozen water, than one occurring in the open, Pfeffer said. Northern European air traffic would be affected if yesterday’s winds continued during an eruption, she said.
The specter of ash clouds is the latest worry for airlines that have had to divert flights in recent weeks around war-torn Syria, Iraq and Ukraine; weigh whether to fly to Tel Aviv after a missile struck near the airport; and adjust Africa operations as Ebola infections trigger public-health alerts. Russia also has threatened to limit flyovers across Siberia by some airlines.
Investors are monitoring the risk of volcano travel tie-ups in Europe with 2010’s mass flight cancellations in mind, Helane Becker, a New York-based aviation analyst with Cowen & Co., wrote in a note to clients yesterday.
“We have gotten more than a handful of calls on this subject, and while the potential impact could be significant, it is tough to handicap how this even will play out,” Becker said. “The European airlines have the most exposure.”
The three biggest U.S. carriers -- American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta -- also serve Northern Europe. Representatives for the U.S. airlines and Federal Aviation Administration said operations were continuing as normal while they monitored the volcano.
“We’re in dialog with authorities awaiting their directions in case of eruption,” Trine Kromann-Mikkelsen, a spokeswoman for Sweden’s SAS AB, said by e-mail. “We are always prepared for irregularity and have experience from last time.”
The Eyjafjallajokull blowup prompted European officials to close the majority of airspace in the region for six days, stranding 10 million passengers. There was less disruption to travel from a 2011 eruption, which was smaller and only affected airports in Iceland and northern Germany for a few hours.
“Europe is more prepared to deal with volcanic ash these days,” Eurocontrol said in a statement. “We have better mechanisms in place than we did in 2010.”
EasyJet Plc, a Luton, England-based budget carrier, said that in the event of an Bardarbunga eruption, it plans to work with partners including Icelandic officials, FutureVolc, planemaker Airbus Group NV and Nicarnica Aviation, which developed technology to detect airborne volcanic ash.
“Applying today’s understanding, we’re many times better prepared to manage the risk of a volcanic eruption,” said spokesman Paul Moore. “No airline wants to fly if there is ash that would affect engines and risk passenger safety but if there aren’t damaging levels of ash in the atmosphere then everyone –- especially our passengers –- wants us to continue to fly.”
The team will “ensure that ash from it is detected and charted from space, using infrared cameras on European weather satellites or through the potential airborne deployment AVOID technology,” EasyJet said in an e-mailed statement. The acronym refers to the Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector.
NetJets Inc., the luxury aviation unit of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., has a crew of meteorologists to track disruptive weather and incidents like the 2010 ash cloud, said Christine Herbert, a spokeswoman. During the 2010 flight shutdown, NetJets helped clients relocate outside of the ash zones so they could be picked up in private jets, Herbert said.
“We are watching it, and our customers that may be affected will be advised based on the recommendations of our weather team,” Herbert said by e-mail. “We are in contact with the local authorities so we can react instantly if the situation changes, but at present this is not affecting any operations.”