David Grizzle, the FAA’s general counsel and acting deputy administrator, gave an opening speech highlighting the FAA’s policy of staying out of day-today decisions about authorizing flights. “We did not want to convey the impression that somehow we knew how to do things better than” European regulators, Mr. Grizzle said.
But the FAA, he told the conference, remains convinced the correct option is to tell pilots to avoid ash, provide them with the best possible forecasts and then let individual airlines “make the fly or no-fly decisions.” Carriers are “better able to integrate the risks” than government bureaucrats, Mr. Grizzle said, and Europe’s efforts amounted to a “different response from what we would have done.”
John Allen, head of the FAA’s flight standards office, later said the agency expects pilots to avoid all volcanic clouds because “right now, we’re afraid of what we don’t know” about potential damage to engines and other systems. “We have the tools [and] we have the procedures” to avoid flying through adverse weather systems, Mr. Allen said “That’s the best way . . . to safely avoid ash.”
In an interview, Patrick Goudou, head of the European Aviation Safety Agency, said he didn’t consider the FAA comments to be attacks on European policies. “I didn’t hear any criticism.”
Still, Mr. Godou is pressing for development of global safety standards for flights in areas that have low levels of volcanic ash. He indicated that long-standing international rules about avoiding ash altogether no longer were viable given the political and economic stresses prompted by April’s eruption. “It changes everything in my mind.”
Initially, European regulators and aviation authorities from various countries imposed strict prohibitions against flying through ash residue. As the financial toll and public outcry grew, however, they relented and approved resumption of flights through areas with low-level concentrations of ash. But sometimes, there was no coordination between countries.
In his remarks on Tuesday, Mr. Goudou acknowledged that in the midst of the crisis, European safety officials realized they had “absolutely no data about how engines [were] reacting to ash.”
According to the EASA chief, “the only possibility in the European system is to have a better model” to predict the movement and concentration of ash particles. “Our priority is to certainly improve what we have done so far.”
Some pilot union leaders and other safety experts remain concerned about potential hazards stemming from the European policies. For instance, critics say, it can be dangerous to fly over ash clouds because an engine failure could force a jetliner to lose altitude and it might end up cruising through heavy ash concentrations.
Some say that improved computer modeling of ash dispersion through the atmosphere largely depends on more-accurate measurements of plumes as they emerge from volcanoes. But scientists are still working on ways to obtain such readings.
Since April, both FAA officials and their European counterparts have ordered stepped-up inspections and maintenance of aircraft to identify potential ash damage. Mr. Goudou said the eruption also has triggered new reporting requirements for airlines to inform EASA, specifically about engine problems or premature wear caused by sucking in ash. Since strict avoidance historically was the standard, regulators haven’t tested new airline models to see how well they are able withstand ash exposure.