Responsibility, Challenges and Decision-Making in the Aviation Industry: Ten Years on from Eyjafjallajökull

Icelandic Ash Cloud

As we remember the 10th anniversary of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption in Iceland, which began on 14 April 2010 and led to immense disruption (Donovan, 2012; Alexander, 2013; Watson, 2015), currently the airline industry is facing an unprecedented global challenge to survive the devastating impacts of COVID-19. This article briefly examines some of the key resilience lessons learnt ten years ago to explore whether these could assist the industry to navigate through and survive the severe impacts upon it caused by the current pandemic.

Before the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, the industry applied a zero-tolerance policy on flying through airspace contaminated with volcanic ash, a precautionary approach following several incidents of aircraft being forced into emergency landings. However, this approach had its critics:

  • Airlines rounded on the authorities for what they judged to be poor decision-making on the basis of excessively conservative ash concentration forecasts, claiming that there was no need to adopt such the draconian measures as wholesale airspace closure (Air Traffic Management, 2014).

The protocol in Europe was set by aviation authorities and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a global regulatory body which led the response and took the decision to amend the level of contamination perceived to be safe. This increased the flexibility of the industry by permitting more aircraft to fly in low concentrations of ash:

  • European aviation regulators amended the zero-tolerance ash policy to allow planes to fly through ash concentrations of less than 2 milligrams per cubic meter, (Earth Magazine, 2017).

Decisions were taken by ICAO, assigning the governing body accountability, and shielding airlines from scrutiny.

However, following the disruption, decision-making strategies were transformed by the Single European Sky (NATS, 2020), a European initiative that granted power and responsibility to individual airlines. If volcanic ash again impacts on the industry in Europe, which is likely since it is a recurring hazard, then airlines will decide whether to fly:

  • We have been working hard with governments to shift the decision to airlines, and stakeholders have realized that operators are best placed to make the call… They are used to making informed safety decisions based on strong processes, applicable data, and solid experience (IATA, 2011).

This decentralised decision-making in Europe, and increased the need for airlines to handle and interpret information, is a setup aligned with every other global region. If decisions are incorrect, the consequences could be catastrophic for the airlines and the industry. ICAO and the aviation authorities across Europe have become solely advisory bodies rather than key decision-makers.

Therefore, the efficiency and transparency of information-sharing is of considerable value, with communication measures designed to improve public safety as well as organizational resilience. This has required airlines to implement policy changes, develop the ability to interpret real-time data, and collaborate with various stakeholders to instantaneously react to changing atmospheric and environmental conditions.

The eruption of Grímsvötn in 2011 provided the opportunity for the industry to test the new limits on safe concentrations of ash, imposed during the 2010 disruption. In contrast, the response was widely perceived to have been successful and cancellations were minimal. However, European aviation cannot be complacent and the threat of large scale disruption is not over, highlighted in 2020 by the eruption of Taal in the Philippines. Icelandic volcanoes erupt every four years on average, providing an ongoing threat to congested airspace in Europe.

The transformation of corporate responsibility and legal frameworks has been considerable. This places a particular burden upon all key stakeholders - including airlines, airports, governing bodies and aviation authorities - to ensure that they make accurate and informed decisions when managing future crises. Decentralisation has led to integrated risk assessments needing to be conducted by individual airlines, rather than collectively by ICAO; for example, airlines continually require specialist legal expertise, training, scenario planning, research, etc.

The devolution of responsibility to airlines, together with the raising of regulatory thresholds, highlight the flexibility of the industry, but increase the legal complexity of decision-making. For instance, the changes provide scope for disputes and disagreements between competing airlines with contrasting business strategies and profit margins (such as affluent and low-cost carriers), but safety is the basis for consensus. Policy and regulatory changes have impacted upon how responsibility is apportioned, significant for corporate and consumer-based insurance, as well as protocol surrounding consumer rights. Furthermore, financial losses caused by volcanic ash have the potential to lead to the bankruptcy of airlines and airports, highlighting the ramifications of decision-making powers.

Therefore, by interacting with resilience planning, risk management and capacity building, the aviation industry has undoubtedly increased its levels of preparedness. Changes to the positionality of airlines in comparison to the governing body, and the pursuit of a less precautionary approach, have been informed by science and industry experts. However, COVID-19 provides another problem for aviation to combat, with flight reductions, airport or border closures, groundings, and passenger cancellations leading to another crisis. The disruption resulting from Eyjafjallajökull provided lessons in complacency, flexibility, inadequate communication, trust and insufficient planning; these could prove invaluable if a complex global industry like aviation is to recover from the unprecedented level of challenges currently facing it.

Daniel Beech is an associate of GSDM specialising in Disaster Risk Reduction, Early Warning Systems, Critical Infrastructure, Hazard Communication, and Emerging Technologies. His doctoral research examined the impacts of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption upon the aviation industry, including key resilience lessons learnt.

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