How volcanoes and airplanes offer lessons for risk taking

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This article is part of our special report Risk vs. hazard in policymaking.

SPECIAL REPORT / When Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010, EU aviation authorities saw little choice but to shut down airspace across much of Europe as a precaution against ash and grit choking aircraft engines.


Though the decision minimised the risk of an airline accident, it had profound effects on the air and travel industries, causing an international bottleneck not seen since the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington.

In the first three days, 15-17 April, more than 42,000 flights were cancelled and ultimately 10 million travellers were affected. A month later, an eruption at the island’s Grímsvötn volcano would cause another scare though with far fewer disruptions.



EU risk assessment for aviation

At the time, airlines and aviation safety authorities could only draw on isolated incidents in the past where ash plumes caused aircraft engines to stall in mid air.

“The only international rule around volcanoes – in capital  letters – was AVOID, AVOID, AVOID …,” Dame Deidre Hutton, chairwoman of the British Civil Aviation Authority, told the European Risk Summit in Dublin on Wednesday (12 June).

The European Commission has since instituted risk-assessment procedures and other policies to address airspace disruption, including creation a European Crisis Co-ordination Cell (EACCC). The Commission also:

  • Established that airlines would provide risk assessments in future events and that national safety authorities would made the decision on whether it was safe to fly;
  • Organised ash simulation exercises;
  • Called for speeding up of European airspace and air traffic control integration to improve crisis response.

Eyjafjallajökull is an extreme example of how regulators apply the precautionary principle to ensure public safety.

Caution vs. competition

While there was acceptance of the restrictions, at least initially, other uses of the precautionary principle in Europe have proved far more contentious.

These include the longstanding disputes over genetically modified foods that have led some leading GM manufacturers to scale back their presence in the EU market and shift research operations to the United States.

Other battles involve opposition to the development of shale gas, which is booming in North America; calls by the European Parliament for  tighter rules on chemicals that some scientists say can lead to human hormonal problems; and emerging about the development technologies at the microscopic level, or nanotechnology.

“We must be careful not to regulate ourselves out of this opportunity,” Sean Sherlock, the Irish minister for research and innovation, told the Risk Conference, a concern echoed by other speakers citing Europe’s ability to compete with less risk-averse markets.

Fear of flying

Aviation may offer a less murky tradeoff between risk and regulation. A lost plane is immediate while it can take years to understand the impact of exposure to dangerous substances, or years of scientific review to understand the potential risks of new products and technologies.

As the Eyjafjallajökull eruption continued to cause havoc with airlines, pressure grew for remedies as airlines losses approached €200 million per day. Initially, planes were rerouted around the ash cloud to flight paths and airports in Southern Europe, which was less affected by the ash.

Regulators, the airlines and aircraft engine producers also agreed that adjusting engines to increase their tolerance to ash, lava fragments and dust would minimise the risk to passenger safety.

The events of 2010, however, left regulators and the aviation industry having to decide how much risk was acceptable.

“The interesting question is, if this situation had carried on for a number of days, where does precaution meet practicality?" Hutton told the risk summit. “The economy is losing hundreds of millions of pounds a day, and millions of people are being stranded. At some point the risk-based assessment changes, the cost-benefit analysis changes."

“And I think it is perfectly possible that if it had gone on longer than it did without being able to reach an agreement from the engine manufacturers, that difficult decisions would have started to be taken.”

Asked if the same risk assessments applied to aviation safety would change the assessments on Europe’s recurring disagreements, such as the lingering uncertainties about GM crops, Hutton, a former British food safety regulator, said “it would be difficult to do anything other than” authorise GM crops.

The eruption of a volcano in Iceland provoked mass disruption on 15 April 2010 as a cloud of ash brought air traffic in much of Europe to a standstill (EURACTIV 15/04/10).

The ash cloud, though largely invisible to the human eye, consisted of extremely fine rock particles, highly dangerous when drawn into aircraft engines, forcing aviation authorities to act swiftly and decisively.

Flights resumed slowly by Tuesday 20 April,under a deal agreed by the European Union to gradually free up airspace (EURACTIV 20/04/10).

In the wake of the eruption, European transport ministers agreed to establish risk-assessment guidelines for flying in volcanic ash and to swiftly unify European airspace.

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