Do we need the politicians to do something about air travel?

Day after day the Regulators of air traffic tell us it will be another 12 or 24 hours before flights can resume. Meanwhile, perishable goods needed in the UK go bad in foreign warehouses, the flow of time sensitive and high value components for British business dries up, sales personnel are grounded, business executives fail to meet potential and present clients, to say nothing of the many people stranded abroad unable to return home to work and school.

It is a good rule that UK Ministers do not intervene daily with their offices or seek to make any new policy statements or announcements as Ministers during an election campaign. However, they do retain their Ministerial jobs whilst losing their MP ones just in case there is something urgent which needs Ministerial level decision.

Surely this issue is just such a one. Given some doubts about the propriety of meeting, they could consult representatives of the other main parties first to lay down ground rules. For surely this is a case where a cross Whitehall review of the options is needed?

We are told the ash cloud is too dangerous to allow any plane to fly through it, so it is best to ground all jet planes.A review would ask

1. Is there any way of flying or protecting the engines so that the dust is not lethal?
2. Are there corridors to the west that would allow contact again with the Americas and Asia via the western routes?
3. Could planes take off from say Bristol and Liverpool, fly out low over the sea far enough to be free from the overhead dust and then climb to a more fuel efficient altitude?
4. Are there staging airports in the Atlantic area they could use to refuel if they have to fly low for any distance?
5. What action is being taken to improve capacity on road and rail ferry routes in all directions to the continent?
6. What do the latest tests show about plane stamina and ability to fly round the obstacles?
7. What actions are other countries taking to allow some flights?
8. Should there be any queue or rationing system imposed if we remain artifically very short of capacity for any length of time? Are there for example priority goods that need to be flown in first?

There are doubtless many other questions experts could raise. The need surely is to get some lateral thinking on how we can get the UK on the move again. This is one time when it does need a government to ask the questions and co-ordinate the response, as it is a branch of government, the air space regulators, who are saying no-one and nothing can fly anywhere for the forseeable future.

Promoted by Christine Hill on behalf of John Redwood, both at 30 Rose Street Wokingham RG40 1XU

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

40 Comments

  1. a-tracy
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Thank goodness someones remembered there's a Country to run as well as a campaign to win. If the Germans fly around this cloud of ash there will be trouble, what about propeller planes/turbo props are they still flying freight around?

    • simon
      Posted April 18, 2010 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

      Any type of gas turbine should suffer from the same type of problems .

      Years back a passenger jet had it's engines cut out after flying through a sand storm and the captain managed to re-ignite them after putting it into a steep glide/shallow dive for something over 10,000 feet .

      A piston engine requires an air filter which could clog sufficiently to stop the engine .

      Have heard some light aircraft overhead .

  2. Nick
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    The problem is damage to the engines. It may be safe to fly, but if you get a small amount of damage to an engine, you could lose 1% on fuel effciency over the life of the engine. Fianancially that's far more damaging than the loss from one flight.

    Interestingly its the same as the cut now, cut later debate. Where the tories are losing is that they aren't pointing out the real choice.

    The real choice is large cuts now, versus massive cuts latter (because of the extra debt payments). Brown's plan wil mean an extra 50 billion of cuts later because of the increase in debts, if interest rates stay the same.

    • Posted April 19, 2010 at 12:26 am | Permalink

      Which will cost the airlines more:

      * refurbishing replacing damaged engines?
      * total loss of revenue over 3+ days, plus hotel bills for all stranded passengers?

      The insurance companies will be busy!

  3. alan jutson
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Flying rules seem to be set in stone.

    Like you I am sure there must be some way to resolve at least some of the problem, if only on a very limited scale, with a very limited service.

    Trains and boats seem to be up to capacity (press reports) from the standard ports and stations, but other routes ?.

    Makes you wonder what would happen if someone chose to invade us right now, would the RAF stay grounded, or simply fly at low level as normal for combat air-ground missions.

    Still the Greens are happy, no aircraft flying causing pollution, but then no taxes either.

  4. Antisthenes
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    You really are clutching at straw and all you are talking about is scoring a political point, OK handy with an election coming up but dubious all the same.

    As it happens this a private sector problem and as a Conservative you know full that the private sector is much better at solving problems than governments are. Your suggestion will already have been taken into consideration and more and if there is a solution it will be found.

    If you are going to get politics involved look to where government can help in supportive roll and what government can do that will help reduce the damage to to private sector and the economy when things return to normal.

  5. Jabez
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    If aircraft engineers are telling us that flying through a cloud of volcanic ash would knacker (industry term) jet engines then I think we have to accept that. Apart from anything else, what company would want to have to replace its ECUs after every flight? Who would want to risk a horrifying accident for the sake of a few crates of fruit and a trade fair or two? The idea of planes jinking around random ash clouds or flying so low that a moment's miscalculation could result in disaster is an ATC nightmare. Export or die, my old dad used to say, but I think even he would have thought twice about this situation.

  6. John Bowman
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    KLM and Lufthansa yesterday each sent an aeroplane up for a test flight among the ash. Neither crashed.

    Engineers are assessing the condition of the aircraft to see if there is any damage.

    On your list of questions you should include one asking why the military was not tasked with this job right at the start of the "problem".

    • gac
      Posted April 18, 2010 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      A Hornet jet has been sent up and its engines have taken some damage. The pilot reported that as far as he was concerned he flew thru clear air!

      British Airways have also sent one up (on its way right now) with a skeleton crew and Willie Walsh on board.

  7. Stuart Fairney
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Some "expert" on SKY was suggesting that the modern 'hot' jet engines are more efficient in reducing CO2 output but because of the temperature, they are more vulnerable to making glass out of the ash thus destroying the engines.

    Does anyone know if propellor driven planes can fly? I presume so, because I saw a glider up yesterday and I imagine he must have had a tow?

    • Alfred T Mahan
      Posted April 18, 2010 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      Not necessarily – most glider launches are ground-based winch tows. Doesn't mean the glider can't climb – on my very first glider flight, in an open two seater as a passenger, I set an altitude record from a winch launch. Pretty parky it was too – I was in an open neck shirt expecting to be up for less than ten minutes and we were up for hours!

      • Stuart Fairney
        Posted April 19, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        Sorry, I was in my "A bridge too far" frame of reference and thinking of DC3's towing gliders to Arnhem ~ of course you are right, but I had no idea you could go for this long from a tow launch. That must have been it. I suppose the temptation of an empty sky, the opportunity of a lifetime, must have been too good to miss.

    • simon
      Posted April 18, 2010 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      A piston engined requires an air filter . When clogged sufficiently they will stop a piston engine from running .

      This can happen on a fuel injected engine but can happen much quicker on a carburetted engines (many aero engines are archaic) as a clogged filter will cause the mixture to become richer leading to the spark plugs getting coated with carbon deposits .

      Carbon deposition will eventually reach the point where even dual magneto's will not be able to ignite the mixture through the dual plugs .

      You would have to fly through a very very dense ash cloud/sand storm to do this in one flight .

      Suppose that the filter is blocked to the point where the engine runs but does not produce full power .
      The next person to try and take off from a short runway fully loaded could overshoot if they didn't abort pretty quickly .

      • Stuart Fairney
        Posted April 19, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        I wish to declare my complete ignorance of all things aviation!

  8. Eotvos
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Mr Redwood, You make some perceptive points.

    There are experts in the UK with authority and experience who could answer your queries. They are the airlines and Rolls Royce.

    British airlines have highly qualified engineers but the world's leading aircraft engine manufacturer, Rolls Royce has more experience in these matters than all the so called experts in NATS, the Met Office and government combined.

    How many employees in NATS and the Met Office are qualified to shut down UK airspace because of a tenuous dust cloud from a volcano 700 miles away?

    Rolls Royce did extensive examination of the engines that failed on Capt. Eric Moody's 747 in 1982. The aircraft entered the volcanic emission near its origin and visibility was only a few meters. The extent of comination was severe.

    KLM had a similar incident.

    Why do government agencies react like this when they have no expertise? The Met Office are so useless at predicting weather that even the BBC are looking into other, private sector agencies. NATS are the most professional and competent air traffic controllers on our planet. No other organisation can match them but I do not feel they should close UK airspace because of how they interpret ICAO regulations.

    Leave these matters to aircraft operators and manufacturers. Penalties are draconian if they make errors of judgement so they will always put safety first .

    There are staging posts for refuelling and means of getting around volcanic emissions but closing airspace precludes this, of course.

  9. backofanenvelope
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Given that there is no situation a government cannot make worse…………….

  10. Posted April 18, 2010 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Another example of why we need to be self sufficient.

  11. Mike Fowle
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    What intrigues me is that the "experts" monitoring the situation are the barbecue summer, mild winter crew, the Met Office. Is this their revenge for general derision? Anyone seen a dust cloud around here lately?

  12. James D
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    The answer to question (4) is a definite "yes". You can narrow the Atlantic by about 20% by flying to Halifax, NS. Whether that would be necessary is another matter — Britain to North America is under half the maximum range of most aircraft used on such routes (with the obvious exception of the JFK-LCY flights).

    The answer to question (5) seems to be "very little": they haven't even convinced Eurostar to suspend compulsory seat reservations and allow standees, let alone impose an emergency timetable, with Eurostar running as a frequent, self-contained shuttle between London and Lille.

  13. Wealth Fanatic
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I think something should be done. This could problem has the potential to last for years and even if we get lucky and flights are able to resume soon, we now know that it is fairly likely to recur sometime in the future.

    My partner and children are currently in Gran Canaria with Ryan Air. They were due to fly back today, but it looks likely that they will be stranded for some considerable time. I also worry about what would happen if Airlines have to cease trading due to financial loss.

    • Stuart Fairney
      Posted April 19, 2010 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      I imagine you want unsolicited advice like a hole in the head, but at the risk of that, could you possibly hop a flight/ferry to Cadiz and the ferry it up to the South coast of England?

      Reply: See today's post

  14. Chris
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Definitely worth reading this article on KLM trial flights, and more. "KLM pushes to resume flights after ash tests" http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100418/ap_on_re_eu/e
    "…The Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, an independent aviation research group based in Sydney, Australia, said it remained unclear whether the closure of much of Europe's airspace was "a massive overreaction of super-cautious politicians and bureaucrats," or a genuinely serious event.

    The group noted that a similar eruption under a glacier in Iceland in the 1990s, led to minimal disruption, with flights routed around the area.

    "It certainly did not lead to region-wide closures of air space. Such has the paranoia around safety and security grown since September 11," the center said in a statement…."

  15. Chris
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    If you cannot access the yahoo link in previous posting try the article in the Telegraph, which refers to KLM action some way down in the text: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/7603

  16. Michael
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    What a refreshing dose of common sense!

    Why does it seem to be in such short supply?

    How much of the panic is due to health and safety, and how much to real risk? Shouldn't someone be making test flights to see just what the risks are, and where they are?

  17. BillyB
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Fair questions… someone must be thinking about them.. especially if that volcano keeps it up for 2 years

  18. Posted April 18, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    The volcanic ash it not the real problem. As I mentioned in my own blog, "When, back in 1982, British Airways Flight 9 flew into the plume of a volcano from Mount Galunggung to the south-east of Jakarta, it was the lack of Oxygen which caused the engines to fail". The carbon dioxide, in fact, was more widely spread than the ash, and it was only when Flight 9 had glided down until it was below the carbon dioxide cloud that the crew were able to restart the engines. Yes the engines were badly damaged, but it was the lack of oxygen which caused them to flame out.
    So why hasn't the carbon dioxide from the Icelandic volcano been mentioned? Well it is somewhat embarrassing to the man-made global warming fanatics and to governments which are taxing carbon emissions when we have a volcano like this pushing out millions of tons of carbon dioxide which they would prefer to ignore.
    So far, I have found no estimated figures for the amount involved, but looking at such data that is available from the past, I would suggest that it is possibly pushing out more carbon dioxide in a day than Britain does in a year.
    So I needn't worry too much about my 4×4!

    • Amanda
      Posted April 18, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, the same thought had occured to me.

      Also, such volcanic dust clouds often seem historically to have had a detrimental effect (ie downwards) on temperature and the weather. Is there any proper scientific analysis of that yet?

  19. Posted April 18, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Hmm, lets try the following question instead…

    Do we need the politicians to…
    A. Come clean and speak the truth?
    B. Come clean and speak the truth?
    C. Stop treating the public like idiots?
    D. Wear lie dectectors at all times?
    E. all of the above?

    You may notice that speak the truth has two entries, this is because it is possible that as a politician you might need to read it twice, because after reading it the first time, you'll be laughing too much to take it in.

  20. Andrew
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Both KLM and Lufthansa have sent up empty planes and report no adverse consequences of flying.

    quote courtesy of the indefatigable Richard North:

    German airline Air Berlin said it had also carried out test flights and expressed irritation at the shutdown of European air space.

    "We are amazed that the results of the test flights done by Lufthansa and Air Berlin have not had any bearing on the decision-making of the air safety authorities," Chief Executive Joachim Hunold said. "The closure of the air space happened purely because of the data of a computer simulation at the Vulcanic Ash Advisory Center in London," he told the mass circulation Bild am Sonntag paper.

    The airspace regulators are scared silly of saying its alright to fly, because they are beaurocrats sitting in comfortable offices., and there are no consequences from saying "no fly". Those are paid by the rest of us in the real world.

  21. Sue Doughty
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Maybe we can use Shannon airport and have road or rail or propllers planes connect to there?
    I see helicopters fly though they are turbo prop,
    We urgently need the high speed rail link in place to take us to airports on the West Coast of Scotland that migt be ash free sometimes.
    Luckily BA just tied up with a Spanish airline and can use slots there for transatlantic flights – but we need transport to there and back.
    Airport related trades must be silent and all those people packing airline meals etc idle. Maybe they can service other transport systems.
    This could go on for 6 months to two years so we need to get things started fast but I see the government dragging its feet.

  22. Daedalus
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    I had to read this twice in one area, were for a moment I thought you were suggesting having jets refuelled in flight, mid Atlantic; but I am sure that is not what you meant.

    Very difficult this one, we do know that 747s have had all engines shut down due to volcanic dust, so it is an issue. Not sure what the fuel consumption would be for a large jet flying at less than 10,000 feet for an appreciable distance, but think it would add tremendously to already tight margins.

    ANY accident would be immediately laid at the door of who ever let the flights start again, dust related or not.

    I suspect that if it goes on for any length of time decisions will be taken to try to get in the air again in circumstances that at the moment will not allow any flying of jets.

    Daedalus.

  23. gac
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Mr Brown and his senior Labour ministers are holding a 'crisis' meeting on Sunday evening.

    Given that we are in the middle of an election should not the leaders of the major opposition parties be asked to attend?

    Just a non-political thought.

  24. Acorn
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    My initial thoughts were is this another WHO pandemic type reaction. By now, half the bloggers on this site should be dead from Sars; Swine Flu; Bird Flu etc., etc.

    But, my colleague reminded me of the KLM 747 that had all four engines flame out on its way to Anchorage Alaska back in 1989. A 747 glides like a brick; it lost about 14000 feet of altitude in about five minutes before they got one of the engines to fire up. The plane was 150 miles from the site of the volcano.

    I understand that most of the Iceland dust is quartz, which unfortunately melts at around the combustion temperature in a modern turbo fan engine. So the front end blades get sand blasted; The power turbine blades get slagged with silicon.

    It was reported at the time that KLM had to splash out $80 million for four new engines; a new paint job and new flight instrumentation.

    Don't let Gordon anywhere near this, leave it to the engineers.

    • simon
      Posted April 18, 2010 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

      Pretty sure that the aerospace industry uses thermal barrier coatings to extend the life of parts which are susceptible to thermal fatigue .

      Any particles which are too big to melt or of a composition which melts at a higher temperature are going to blast those coatings off .

      Not a decision I would want Richard Branson , Willie Walsh or their accountants making either .

  25. no one
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    Royal Mail are getting air mail to the USA by shipping it via road/ferry to the South of Spain and then flying it from there

    It would seem buses and planes could do the same for passengers, I would like to know when we have not started such a lifeline for people who really need to travel?

    Fine dont fly the cloud but put in place bus relays to somewhere safe to fly from for those that REALLY need to travel

  26. Ian B
    Posted April 18, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    The simple problem is, that if there's a plane crash, every politician and regulator responsible for allowing planes to fly will be blamed.

  27. Winston's Black
    Posted April 19, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Don't our Masters in Brussels control UK airspace now?

    In other words there is sweet Fanny Adams we can do about it even if we want to!

    Short of leaving the EU of course which Cast-Iron Dave has categorically stated he does not want to do.

  28. Robert K, Oxford
    Posted April 20, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    No

  29. Posted April 24, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Pretty sure that the aerospace industry uses thermal barrier coatings to extend the life of parts which are susceptible to thermal fatigue .

    Any particles which are too big to melt or of a composition which melts at a higher temperature are going to blast those coatings off .

    Not a decision I would want Richard Branson , Willie Walsh or their accountants making either .

  30. Posted April 24, 2010 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    Both KLM and Lufthansa have sent up empty planes and report no adverse consequences of flying.

    quote courtesy of the indefatigable Richard North:

    German airline Air Berlin said it had also carried out test flights and expressed irritation at the shutdown of European air space.

    "We are amazed that the results of the test flights done by Lufthansa and Air Berlin have not had any bearing on the decision-making of the air safety authorities," Chief Executive Joachim Hunold said. "The closure of the air space happened purely because of the data of a computer simulation at the Vulcanic Ash Advisory Center in London," he told the mass circulation Bild am Sonntag paper.

    The airspace regulators are scared silly of saying its alright to fly, because they are beaurocrats sitting in comfortable offices., and there are no consequences from saying "no fly". Those are paid by the rest of us in the real world.

One Trackback

  1. […] a candidate. he’s wondering if the political process needs to be involved in the problems of Air Traffic and Volcanic Ash. It’s a well argued point, but while they are no longer MP’s, the Cabinet can still function if […]

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.

  • John’s Books

  • Email Alerts

    You can sign up to receive John's blog posts by e-mail by entering your e-mail address in the box below.

    Enter your email address:

    Delivered by FeedBurner

    The e-mail service is powered by Google's FeedBurner service. Your information is not shared.

  • Map of Visitors

    Locations of visitors to this page