Eyjafjallajökull – finally (we hope) farce

So the UK’s airspace is open again after the Civil Aviation Authority issued this rather plaintive statement:

The CAA has drawn together many of the world’s top aviation engineers and experts to find a way to tackle this immense challenge, unknown in the UK and Europe in living memory.

Current international procedures recommend avoiding volcano ash at all times. In this case owing to the magnitude of the ash cloud, its position over Europe and the static weather conditions most of the EU airspace had to close and aircraft could not be physically routed around the problem area as there was no space to do so.

We had to ensure, in a situation without precedent, that decisions made were based on a thorough gathering of data and analysis by experts. This evidence based approach helped to validate a new standard that is now being adopted across Europe.

The major barrier to resuming flight has been understanding tolerance levels of aircraft to ash. Manufacturers have now agreed increased tolerance levels in low ash density areas.

The no-fly zones – if they are the same agreed by Eurocontrol – are a few tiny patches of sky, leaving the media increasingly convinced that the past week has been a to-do about nothing (cf. BSE, swine flu).

With the crisis seemingly ending in farce, let’s hope there’s not a final tragic act (a plane loses an engine or falls out of the sky) or sequel (Katla erupts). If that happens, journalists will swiftly execute a U-turn – to complain that governments have been reckless in putting passengers’ lives at risk, or have failed to equip the world’s aircraft with the sensors that can keep them flying when ash is in the air.

It’s still not clear to me how a few test flights – which one expert yesterday derided as evidentially useless – have allowed a safe level of ash for jet engines. According to the Guardian, however, there has been a tussle over the issue that long pre-dates this crisis, with industry (afraid of legal action) previously arguing for a rigid application of the precautionary principle.

When the inevitable enquiry is announced, I hope it is given a broad remit to look at how European society responded to the crisis, and not just be charged with focusing on technical issues.

As I have argued on Saturday morning, governments allowed themselves to get behind the curve on the crisis and never recovered; the media was always uncomfortable with the issue (until it settled on someone to blame); while the public response (including widespread use of social media) tells us a lot about how we are and are not resilient in the face of crisis.

All these aspects should be studied by the enquiry team.

In the UK. a lot of attention will quite rightly focus on how three organisations worked together – the CAA, NATS (the air traffic controllers), and the Met Office. While it is hard to know what went on behind the scenes, in public, the relationship between the three seemed increasingly strained.

At the start of the crisis, NATS was very happy to be in the lead. Over time, it became increasingly keen to pass the buck, underlining that it was only following advice given it by its fellow members of the ‘no fly’ triad.

Communication from the three organisations was woeful, in marked contrast with the much more proactive approach of Eurocontrol. I fail to understand why Ministers did not force them to run regular joint press conferences – and to establish a shared web portal (backed up by a Twitter feed) to provide regular and comprehensive updates.

Here’s a thread I think the enquiry might like to pick at, taking it into the opacity and vagueness of official communications. What on earth happened to the mysterious ‘second cloud’ that NAS was warning us about only the night before last?

Since our last statement at 1530 today, the volcano eruption in Iceland has strengthened and a new ash cloud is spreading south and east towards the UK.  This demonstrates the dynamic and rapidly changing conditions in which we are working. Latest information from the Met Office shows that the situation is worsening in some areas.

I never saw any other evidence that this new cloud really existed (though perhaps it did) – but its existence was unquestioningly reported by media on both sides of the Atlantic. How, if the situation was worsening, could airspace be reopened just 24 hours later?

For all Global Dashboard coverage of the crisis – click here. Plus some risk management lessons from the Economist. Also, John Kay. And Sue Cameron gives Lord West a pasting for deploying the navy.

Calais Rescue Shut Down! (updated)

When crisis strikes, it doesn’t take long for people to start finding ways to help themselves.

On 9/11, a self-organising flotilla began to evacuate people from Manhattan even before the Twin Towers fell. Katrina saw the same improvised response.

The Coast Guard did not act alone in its sizeable rescue effort. An emergent and ephemeral flotilla of civilian boat operators also converged on the heavily damaged areas, both on their own initiative and in response to a call for assistance by political leaders. The ability of Coast Guard operational commanders to act relatively autonomously in the field, a strong-hold of experienced personnel, versatile training, an organizational environment that combines uniformed and civilian operations, and the development of a shared vision of what was necessary by both Coast Guard and civilian boat operators facilitated the ability to improvise at a multi-organizational level.

Interestingly, one of New York City’s most dramatic (albeit rarely mentioned) improvised response activities on September 11th, 2001 was the waterborne evacuation of Lower Manhattan… The harbor community did not have plans to execute a mass evacuation of the City, but vessels converged—again, some on their own initiative and others in response to the Coast Guard’s call for all available boats—to improvise a successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, ferries, tugs, dinner cruise boats, and other private vessels played an even more significant role in the operation than actual Coast Guard vessels. This same operation quickly became involved in transporting critical equipment, supplies, and personnel to Manhattan on return trips to collect more evacuees

Today saw an attempt by Dan Snow to organize a Dunkirk-style evacuation from France, for those unable to get a plane home after Eyjafjallajökull shut down European airspace (more on Europe’s slow motion crisis, here).

Dan has been tweeting as calaisrescue. Unfortunately, it seems the authorities have not taken too kindly to his efforts, bringing the rescue effort to a halt after just three boat loads got away:

It’s not yet clear exactly what happened (I am guessing a health and safety issue) – but any attempt to stamp on bottom-up resilience seems extremely short-sighted. After all, the 2003 European heat wave was such a disaster precisely because people didn’t help their neighbours.

The decision to stamp on the rescue could also make an interesting campaign theme for David Cameron, who has put the Big Society (and resilience, too) at the heart of his bid for office, providing a good example of where the state (presumably the French one, in this case) crowds out community-led initiative.

[BTW those interested in community resilience should read Charlie Edwards’s Resilient Nation – as well as these talks (1, 2) for RUSI.]

Update: BBC says ‘French officials’ took the decision… though there appear to be efforts ongoing to get the show back on the road.