Volcano Crisis: Europe to Fast-Track Single Sky, Compensate Airlines

BRUSSELS, Belgium, April 28, 2010 (ENS) – The closure of European airspace due to the volcanic eruption in Iceland has cost the aviation industry between 1.5 billion and 2.5 billion euros (about US$1.7 billion), the European commissioner responsible for transport said Tuesday.

Vice-President Siim Kallas said, “The Commission considers that the exceptional circumstances of recent days may justify support measures to offset losses incurred,” as long as compensation is granted on the basis of uniform criteria established at European level.

The International Air Transport Association applauded the announcement. “Airlines lost revenues of US$1.7 billion in just six days, with the greatest impact on European carriers,” said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s director general and CEO. “These urgent measures will provide much needed assistance to airlines at a time when their financial resources are stretched.”

Planes at London’s Heathrow Airport (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto.com)

Now that the situation is normalizing, said Kallas, Europe must act quickly to revise international procedures in case of volcanic eruptions continue to disrupt air travel.

“We need urgently to address the risk management planning for any future disruption caused by volcanic activity,” he said.

The European Commission will focus on a package of short-term and structural measures for the air transport industry, which Kallas proposed in association with Vice-President Joaquin Almunia, responsible for competition and state aid, and Commissioner Olli Rehn, responsible for economic and monetary affairs.

The European Commission will “create an expert group of all stakeholders and develop a new European methodology for safety risks and risk management,” Kallas told fellow members of the commission, the EU’s executive branch of government.

“The aim is for the EU to submit a proposal for a new regulatory framework to the International Civil Aviation Organization in September 2010,” Kallas said.

Kallas said Europe needs to “fast track the Single Skies package,” moving it forward by two years.

The Single European Sky II, SES II, was set to come into force in 2012. It would organize European air traffic according to traffic flows rather than national borders by putting in a single European system for air traffic.

“We need a single European regulator for a single European sky,” Kallas said. “Stronger European co-ordination will not solve every problem. But faced with such a pan-European crisis, it would have enabled a much more agile response.”

Ash plume rises from the erupting Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, April 27, 2010. (Photo courtesy Iceland MET)

The European Commission is ready to fast-track its work to have many core elements of the Single European Sky II package in place by the end of this year. “We will look for political support from transport ministers at the extraordinary meeting on May 4th to take this forward,” Kallas said.

Passengers have rights, Kallas said, and they should be enforced uniformly across the European Union.

At the height of the eruption April 14-19, more than 100,000 flights were canceled, leaving more than 10 million passengers unable to travel. On Sunday April 18, Europe experienced the lowest air traffic during the crisis, with less than 20 percent of the usual traffic taking place.

On April 19, EU transport ministers agreed to a gradual reopening of airspace and by April 22, flights were almost back to normal, with 27,284 flights, compared to 28,578 expected on a normal day.

With the Eyjafjallajokull volcano still erupting and no end in sight, it is possible that European air travel could again be disrupted.

According to the Iceland Meteorological Office, on Tuesday the volcano’s eruption plume was heading west-northwest from the eruption site at an elevation of three to 3.6 kilometers (10 to 12,000 feet). The plume rose about twice as high during the April 14-17 period and drifted across most of northern Europe.

“There are no measurable indications that the eruption is about to end,” the Iceland MET said in a statement Tuesday. The volcano’s last major eruption in the 1820s lasted for two years.

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