EasyJet to Fit Some Aircraft With Volcanic-Ash Detectors

EasyJet Plc, Europe’s second-biggest discount carrier, aims to fit sensors capable of detecting volcanic ash on some of its planes by the end of next year.

EasyJet, Airbus SAS and Nicarnica Aviation tested the gear last month in an artificial ash cloud at between 9,000 and 11,000 feet, the Luton, England-based carrier said today. The trial saw one aircraft release dust gathered from Icelandic volcanoes and a second use the new Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector to identify and avoid the particles.

The system sensed ash from as far as 60 kilometers (37 miles), a distance at which pilots could adjust flight paths around dangerous clouds, EasyJet said. European airline traffic fell 12 percent in April 2010, exceeding the worst declines of the 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, industry figures show.

“We have to prepare for this, because it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Ian Davies, EasyJet’s engineering director, said at a press conference in Toulouse, France today. The airline was this year made aware of seven eruptions, all in Africa, that could have affected operations, Davies added.

Bay of Biscay

Abrasive, silica-based material from volcanoes can clog engines and scar windshields. Similar to weather radars already in use, the infra-red AVOID system dates from 1993 and was developed by the U.S. military. It can also sense sulfur dioxide, meteorological clouds and Saharan dust, Nicarnica director Fred Prata said.

The ash cloud produced over the Bay of Biscay on Oct. 30 was between 600 feet and 800 feet deep and measured 2.8 kilometers in diameter. It was made up of one ton of dust and visible to the naked eye before dissipating, EasyJet said. In addition to the Airbus A340-300 fitted with the AVOID sensor and the Airbus A400M that released the dust, a Diamond DA42 propeller plane was used to take measurements inside the cloud.

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 assesses dust density according to weather forecasts.

Avoid Ash

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. During testing, AVOID detected ash and measured concentrations between 0.0001 to 0.001 grams per cubic meter, Davies said.

EasyJet is looking to get advisory approval from the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority to use a prototype of the sensor aboard its jets, with a goal of installing the system on one or two aircraft by the end of next year, spokesman Paul Moore said. The device, which uses infrared technology, would be fitted into the nose of the plane, rather than mounted on the fuselage as it was during the trials, he said.

“Trying to model or monitor any of these natural hazards or phenomena is very difficult, but at the moment pilots are basically flying blind with respect to ash and now they’re not, so that has to be very positive,” said Stephen Edwards of the Aon Benfield UCL Hazard Centre at University College London.

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