According to Eurocontrol, the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation, 8,700 flights took place in European airspace on April 19, 2019. This was within the 8,000 to 9,000 flights that were predicted. On the same day, European transport ministers reached an agreement to divide European airspace into three distinct zones.
The first zone; the area immediately surrounding Iceland is the danger zone where aircraft will be prohibited. The second, a cautious zone, will allow only some planes to fly while the third zone, labeled as safe, will allow normal flights.
Early Tuesday morning, NATS, the British air traffic control agency issued a statement advising that the volcano near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier had strengthened. A new cloud of volcanic ash has formed and is making its way towards the U.K. and northern Europe. While many airports have re-opened, they may be forced to close again when the cloud hits.
According to the New York Times, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Britain were due to re-open Tuesday morning. But in the U.K. only Scotland is expected to see limited service because of the strengthening of the volcano. British Airways is not expected to operate any European flights but international flights may go ahead this afternoon depending on the opening of airspace. And Qantas Airlines in Australia has announced that Friday will be the earliest that flights to Europe will resume.
The Danger of Flying Through Volcanic Ash
When a jet aircraft flies through a cloud of ash, the particles are sucked into the engines. As well, the ash can collect on the windshield, limiting the flight crew’s ability to see. Particles that are taken into the aircraft can damage the engines and the plane’s electrical system. In a worst case scenario, all of the engines will cut out.
According to the Wall Street Journal, a zero tolerance for volcanic ash has been in place between 1982 and now. In 1982, a Boeing 747 lost power in all of its engines after flying through ash and dropped 24,000 feet before the pilot was able to restart the engines. According to Boeing there have been at least 90 jet aircraft that have experienced difficulties after flying through clouds containing volcanic particles. Should a plane’s engines begin to fail, the aircraft manufacturer suggests the pilot attempt to restart the engines after the plane has dropped below the cloud. Clean air rushing into the engines can clean out the ash and allow the engines to be restarted.
Since the last eruption of the Icelandic volcano, European fighter jets have remained in the air. While all were able to land safely, damage to the engines and other parts of the aircraft has been reported.
There is no scientific answer to how much ash can be present in the atmosphere in order for a plane to experience no difficulties. It is not known how the European transport ministers will define the cautious zone.
The EU is trying to balance airline safety with the human and financial cost of grounded planes. With the new cloud on the horizon, some flights that are scheduled will likely be cancelled.