Impact of the volcano disruption on the airlines
– Joris Melkert, MSc BBA, is assistant professor in aerospace engineering at the Delft University of Technology. The opinions expressed are his own.-
Despite the announcement that air space could begin to re-open in Northern Europe, the Icelandic volcano eruption could prove to be a major turning point for the global airline industry with short- to medium-term questions already being asked by some about its future financial viability.
One of the biggest questions, which engineers will be grappling with right now, is whether there is a cost-efficient way to ‘design out’ the current problems that aircraft experience with dust clouds.
The short answer is that it may be possible to make modifications to aircraft engine cores to make them less sensitive to ash deposits. However, such major engine development is a long term project so no solution will be in sight for at least a year. Moreover, the expense of such an undertaking could be prohibitively costly for airlines right now.
The volcano eruption has cost the airline industry an estimated 200 million dollars each day. Voicing the industry’s frustration and concern, the Air Transport in Europe (AEA) trade body warns that, without state aid, some airlines would have potentially gone out of business as soon as next week unless travel restrictions began to be lifted.
The crisis has been especially worrying for the industry for three main reasons.
• First, because the economic downturn of the last two years has already left many airlines in a very financially precarious position with cash flow a major concern.
• Second, because Eyjafjallajökull, the Icelandic volcano which has erupted, could potentially sputter on (perhaps intermittently) for months or even more than a year.
• Third, because the recent transport chaos could be followed in swift succession by an eruption at Eyjafjallajökull’s much bigger volcanic neighbour, Katla, as happened the last time Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 1821 – 1823 and 1612. If Katla were to erupt in a significant way, the potential for travel chaos and economic damage would much greater than has occurred so far.
The massive financial hit being taken by the airline industry has perhaps inevitably brought it into conflict with regulators.
The IATA, the body that represents the world’s airlines, has been particularly critical about the decision to ground airlines on the basis on what it purports is “a theoretical model which does not work… instead of using a system and taking decisions on facts and on risk assessment”.
The industry also points to the numerous airlines which have launched test flights and found that the ash in the atmosphere had neither caused damage to the aircraft nor threatened the safe conduct of travel.
However, long-term damage to aircraft engines may not be witnessed after just a handful of test flights. Moreover, the first duty of regulators must always be to put passenger safety first, and legitimate concerns do exist about flying in parts of Europe in current conditions.
When one knows where the dust clouds are, it is possible to avoid them by flying over or under them. However, the problem with flying over is that it runs the risk of having to pass through them first.
The problem with flying underneath the clouds is that planes have to fly in air with a higher density with greater drag. For every 5 kilometre drop in height, density doubles. Thus, when aircraft move down from a cruise altitude of 10 kilometres to 5 kilometres drag and thus fuel consumption will double. This is a serious obstacle for long-haul flights in particular.
In the short term, the best way forward will probably be for air space to be re-opened progressively based on the results of test flights with continuous monitoring of potential long-term damage to aircraft engines.
Once this current crisis is over, the key short to medium-term question for the airline industry will therefore be whether there is a cost-efficient way to ‘design out’ the current problems that engines experience with dust clouds.
This might become especially necessary if, as predicted, volcanic eruptions in Iceland and indeed elsewhere in the world become more frequent in coming years whilst world wide air traffic continues to grow. At the end of the last ice age, for instance, the rate of eruption in Iceland was some 30 times higher than historic rates.
This is because the reduction in the ice load reduced the pressure in the mantle, leading to decompression melting there. Since the late 19th century the ice caps in Iceland have been shrinking yet further, due to changing climate. This will lead to additional magma generation, so we should not be surprised if more frequent and/or more voluminous eruptions start happening in the future.
Even if a technical solution isn’t possible to the aircraft engine core, it is unlikely that this will pose a mortal long-term threat to the industry. With growing wealth, the global populace will want to travel more, despite concerns about global warming. There will simply not be enough available capacity in surface transportation to meet this need.
While the short-term future of some airlines will therefore be a very rocky one indeed, growing global demand for long-haul travel in particular will ensure that the industry continues to exist and possibly prosper despite this week’s travel chaos.