The Plume and the Planes

Earlier successes in dealing with ash made airlines complacent

"That's kind of biting us in the back right now"

Aviation authorities trying to sort out the Icelandic volcano mess have been operating under a cloud of uncertainty. How much volcanic ash and dust can airplanes safely fly through? Where exactly is the ash, how dense is it, and where will it be in a few hours? Lacking reliable answers to these questions, authorities played it safe and stopped thousands of flights after the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull on Apr. 14, stranding passengers around the world and causing airlines to lose more than $200 million a day.

This ignorance was avoidable. Governments and airlines have long known about the risk to aircraft from volcanic ash. They have partly solved the problem by creating a workable system for monitoring the ash and redirecting aircraft around it. But they could do more. They haven't invested the money on research and data collection that would be required to minimize disruptions while still guaranteeing passengers' safety.

To some degree, the international effort to minimize harm to aircraft from volcanic ash has been a victim of its own success at steering planes around plumes. Governments stepped up their monitoring and communication efforts after volcanic ash temporarily shut down engines on jets in 1982 in Indonesia and 1989 in Alaska. There were 10 engine shutdowns from 1980 to 2001, but none since, according to Marianne Guffanti, a vulcanologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Va. Says Guffanti: "That's kind of biting us in the back right now because the more successful we are, the more people think there's no problem."

Fred Prata, a British climate scientist who has patented an aircraft-mounted device for detecting volcanic ash, says he has encountered the same complacency. Prata estimates that his infrared camera, installed on the front of a plane, would require just $20,000 worth of hardware, although the airlines would also bear costs for airworthiness certification, cockpit redesign, pilot training, and so on. He says he has gotten attention over the past 20 years from manufacturers and airlines after big eruptions, but each time the air cleared, "interest just waned." Air Transport Association of America spokesman David Castelveter says it would be "premature" to conclude that airlines underinvested in technology for coping with ash.

Volcanic ash is only one of many environmental risks that get short shrift because they occur so rarely, says Richard Posner, a federal appellate judge in Chicago who wrote a 2004 book called Catastrophe: Risk and Response. Says Posner: "Because the number of low-probability, catastrophic events is so large, safety agencies, industry, and so on just kind of tune out. Long-range planning is regarded as a luxury."

The bottom line: It is actually possible to plan for "black swan" events. But companies need foresight and discipline to pull it off.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.