Will Fred Stop Your Flight Being Cancelled?
This morning, easyJet held a press conference to announce that a solution might have been found to one of the problems that significantly affected us during April and May. The Icelandic volcanic eruption caused cancellations in Europe, disrupted travel plans and contributed to reduced economic activity. EasyJet said that the disruption cost them between £50 and £75 million. Two of my flights were cancelled and train services did well out of me, being able to charge higher rates than I would normally pay in order to get back home. Now easyJet think that this solution, called AVOID, could prevent a similar issue affecting us in the same way. And it is all down to Fred.
Fred is actually Dr Fred Prata, a scientist working at NILU (Norwegian Institute of Air Research) and he has been working on this technology since 1993. It is he who has developed AVOID which for the technically minded of you stands for Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector.
The problem, he explained, is not knowing how much ash was in the atmosphere. Opening a tin, he blew some ash into the air and Andy Harrison, Chief Executive of easyJet immediately said that no flights could travel as there was now an ash cloud! Dr Prata’s solution is to use fast sampling imaging, infra red cameras attached to the tailfins of planes to detect ash up to 100 kilometres away. It sounded so simple they way he explained it. Apparently you can split infra red light just as you can split ordinary light. If the amount of red is greater than blue then there is ash in the atmosphere. More blue and there is water and ice. If the amount of red is the same as the blue all is well with the world. By measuring the amount of red, AVOID can assess the volume of ash. That will help authorities to decide whether planes can fly and where. It could mean that there can be ash but we can fly around it or in thinly affected areas.
Fine in theory but will it work? This is where easyJet comes in. It is spending £1 million on development work including attaching this camera to one of its planes, a 4 engined (for obvious reasons) Airbus A340, and then it will fly into an area where there are ash particles. But, I hear you say, there is no ash in European airspace at the moment. Correct but Quito airport in Ecuador and Guatemala City airport are both closed due to ash activity. So there will be ash somewhere that Fred and easyJet can use for the test. This will take place in the next 2 months. EasyJet then plans to put this on about 12 planes so it can gather much more information. With more information then, it is hoped that better models will enable those who regulate our airspace to make better decisions on when to ground flights. Or, as easyJet hopes, never to ground them to the same severity ever again.
And with Fred’s AVOID, it might just stop your flight being cancelled in the future if we are ever unlucky enough to have such a volcanic eruption again.
During the ash shutdown one academic vulcanologist appeared frequently on TV and in newspapers so we asked him for his thoughts on AVOID.
Dr David Rothery, who chairs the Open University’s course on Volcanoes, Earthquakes and Tsunamis http://www3.open.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/course/s186.htm commented “The AVOID system is likely to be a very reassuring safety measure. If it works, as I believe it will, then no aircraft equipped with this ash detection system ever need blunder into an ash cloud dense enough to cause damage. However, this is not the complete solution for managing flights during a volcanic ash crisis. Commercial flights need to know where the ash is before take-off, so an appropriate route can be plotted that will get them to their destination. For example, a last-minute course change mid-way through a trans-Atlantic flight will certainly make the flight-time longer and may leave insuffiient fuel to reach the destination.”
Stressing the need for monitoring and tracking of ash by using satellite images as a way of completing the picture, and measurements of ash cloud heights and density with lidar instruments (a kind of laser radar), Dr Rothery added, “The industry needs to establish just how much ash a jet engine can tolerate. No safe threshold had been agreed before the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud hit us in April, and that’s why so much airspace was closed for so long. This is not a “phantom menace” – engines DO fail if they suck in too much ash. The “safe” ash threshold of 2 milligrams per cubic metre was announced in rather a hurry after the first six days of flight bans, and I would feel more comfortable with a threshold based on longer study and agreed by the experts away from the commercial and logistica pressures of an ongoing flight ban.