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Volcanic Ash Crisis: Frequently Asked Questions

20 April 2010

The purpose of this memo is to respond to the most frequently asked questions concerning the current volcanic ash crisis, notably in relation to the Commission's role in opening up Europe's airspace, while fully respecting safety requirements, to passenger rights and to the economic response for sectors hit by the crisis.

While decisions on airspace management are a national competence, faced with a situation which had become unsustainable the Commission intervened to help facilitate European solutions – to maximise available airspace, within strict safety controls. The Commission has worked tirelessly since Friday, 16th April to work with all key actors to open up corridors of European airspace. Progressively opening up airspace holds the key to providing the most immediate relief to stranded passengers and hard hit economic sectors, while ensuring that safety concerns remain paramount.


The context:

This is an unprecedented crisis facing Europe. A unique combination of 3 factors coming together have resulted in an almost complete lock-down of European airspace:

We have seen:

  1. Severe and prolonged volcanic disruption;
  2. Weather conditions that mean the ash cloud has remained over Europe; and
  3. A risk management model based on a strict precautionary principle

Treated separately, or even with two of these factors coinciding the crisis would have been much less severe.

Faced with this crisis, who is responsible for managing Europe's airspace?

  1. The decision to open or shut airspace is entirely national. Only a Member State Authority can decide to open or close its national airspace.
  2. Those national decisions on airspace are implemented by EuroControl (an independent agency in Brussels with 38 Member countries). EuroControl co-ordinates all the information and then approves flight plans for air companies across the different Member States, depending on the available airspace.
  3. There is NO EU competence for air traffic management or in relation to decisions taken to open and close airspace i.e. the European Commission and European Parliament have NO role – it is for individual Member State Governments to decide.

So what happened when the volcano erupted? What procedures were followed?

Safety is the first priority of aviation policy. When the volcano erupted last Thursday, Member States (Civil Aviation Authorities with National Air Traffic Controllers) started to close airspace – based on the scientific advice from the Volcanic Ash Centre in London (linked to the London Met office) and applying the risk assessment models agreed by Member States under ICAO Guidelines for Europe (International Civil Aviation Organisation).

Member states were absolutely right to react as they did in applying the model and procedures agreed for the European area in line with International Civil Aviation organisation guidelines. Safety is the first priority of aviation policy and must remain so.

What was the Commission's intervention as the situation evolved?

From Thursday onwards large parts of the European Airspace were shut down by national authorities. From an average of 28,000 flights a day in Europe, by Friday less than half of Europe's airspace was in use. Thousands of air passengers were stranded, air companies and other economic sectors were very hard hit.

The cloud was not moving. And Europe was facing into another week of major traffic disruption. As the situation evolved, the model and risk management procedures were tested. It became clear to Member States, national safety authorities, national air traffic controllers, the industry and EuroControl that a more differentiated approach was needed. But no member state acting independently could take the first step to introduce change.

At the end of last week, the European Commission, working with the Spanish Presidency and Eurocontrol proposed a European Framework which could move the situation forwards.

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