Aug. 28, 2014

In recent weeks, two European volcanoes – Bardarbunga in Iceland and Stromboli in Italy – have seen increasing seismic activity and other signs of potential eruption, leading the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to issue guidance on how to safely operate in areas of volcanic activity.

Aside from the obvious visibility concerns, volcanic ash can cause catastrophic damage to aircraft engines. EASA’s bulletin, initially issued Aug. 21, says airspace closures should only be an action of last resort in the event of volcanic ash contamination. Review the EASA bulletin. (PDF)

“The 2011 eruption [of Iceland’s Grimsvotn volcano] caught everyone by surprise,” said Jason Plowman, manager of meteorology at Universal Weather and Aviation, Inc. “At that time there wasn’t much of a protocol for Atlantic airways closures due to volcanoes. Several countries had to come together and rapidly come up with a game plan.”

The situation with Grimsvotn was similar to that following the 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul volcano, which was less powerful than the Grimsvotn eruption, but was more disruptive to aviation.

The industry is more prepared today. Scientists worldwide now measure and monitor seismic activity, and lava flow under glaciers. Increases in these activities could indicate an imminent eruption. Possible volcanic activity is reported using a color-coded alert system, with a “red alert” indicating imminent eruption is possible. Iceland’s Bardarbunga volcano was downgraded to level orange at the end of August, although it had reached red alert status earlier in the month.

“Business aircraft operators don’t want to go out of their way to avoid a hypothetical situation,” said Plowman. “But we recommend operators have a contingency plan. They should be ready to divert or, in some cases, climb over an ash cloud.”

NBAA Monitors Volcanic Activity

NBAA Air Traffic Services (ATS) handles volcanic ash situations similar to the way it deals with hurricanes. ATS staff communicates regularly with the appropriate agencies – National Air Traffic Services, United Kingdom in the case of the Iceland volcano – to help ensure a plan is in place to continue flight operations as safely and efficiently as possible following an eruption. ATS then sends NBAA Member Companies airspace alerts via email and through Twitter (@NBAA_ATS) as airspace is restricted or closed.

“Aircraft operators should be prepared for route changes in case of an eruption,” said John Kosak, an NBAA air traffic management specialist. “This might mean carrying extra fuel or being somewhat flexible in your travel plans.”

Kosak also advised operators not to become too focused on possible volcanic activity in Iceland to the exclusion of considering risks elsewhere. For example, two volcanoes in Alaska are showing signs of activity.

“Volcanic activity is one more issue for business aircraft operators to consider when planning international trips,” said Kosak. “Operators should ask their flight planning service provider if their flight path will take them near any volcanoes and, if so, request recommendations for a contingency plan.”

Review NBAA’s volcanic information resource page.