Thousands of frustrated passengers were left stranded at airports across the country last month, as ash plume from a Chilean volcano caused significant disruption to Australian airline schedules. The incident follows May’s flight scheduling turmoil in the UK, after Icelandic volcanic ash entered British airspace. While some Australian airlines continued flight operations, others have cancelled and delayed flights, causing considerable frustration among passengers.

Risk Appetite and Decision Making

The differing responses to the incident indicate that Australian airlines have different risk appetites. This raises questions about the balance of safety with commercial considerations. Prioritising safety as a core brand value, Qantas initially decided to cancel and re-route flights, while Virgin and Air New Zealand continued to fly.

Qantas made this decision on the advice of its Critical Operational Event Group, in consultation with the Bureau of Meteorology and the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC). Acknowledging that some customers were questioning Qantas’s extreme measures, Chief Executive Officer, Alan Joyce, stated:

‘Qantas does not take the decision to cancel flights lightly. We understand that this causes significant disruptions for all our customers.... But safety is our first priority and we will never fly unless we are fully satisfied that it is safe to do so.’

Joyce further explained the conservative approach which Qantas takes to VAAC reports and forecasts:

‘Unlike the meteorological authorities in Europe, Australia's VAAC does not have the ability to calculate ash density so we are unable to access definitive measurements. Our policy is not to fly into areas where the concentration of volcanic ash is unknown. Without certainty about the density of the ash, we do not consider it safe to fly.’

The 1982 Incident

Concerns surrounding volcanic ash have been prominent since a severe incident occurred in June 1982, involving a British Airways 747 travelling from Singapore to Perth over Java.

Flying through an ash plume from an Indonesian volcano, all four of the aircraft’s engines failed, resulting in a 12,000 foot drop. Pilot Eric Moody was able to re-activate some of the engines in order to make an emergency landing in Jakarta, but damage done to the aircraft was substantial.

Monitoring Systems

Due to the shortcomings of Australia’s monitoring systems, air carriers are unable to obtain a complete picture of the context in which the risks of flying are to be assessed. Decisions as to whether it is safe to fly need to be made without knowledge of the ash density, which is, according to Eric Moody, a relevant factor. Moody said on the ABC’s 7.30 report on 22 June 2011, ‘unless the ash is quite dense, then it's not going to cause a lotta trouble. If it's dense, I wouldn't go anywhere near it.’

Given the financial losses and disruption caused by flight re-scheduling, Moody suggested that it is likely that airlines have overreacted to the Chilean ash plume. He explained:

There is always residual ash in the air over Java. You go up at the Top End, up around... Broome? - and up round that way and look at the lovely sunsets you get. That's because the dust from Indonesia is drifting down towards you. There's always residual ash up there. And I would hazard a guess that the ash now over Sydney, New Zealand is not much, if any, thicker than that ever is. So I do believe it's an overreaction.

However, as Joyce indicated, in the absence of specific information about the density of the ash, it was impossible for Qantas to be certain enough of the safety of the airspace to justify flying at risk of its brand reputation.

This incident has highlighted the importance of weighing up the costs and benefits of taking precautionary measures. In the context of operating flights with a potential hazard in the airspace, significant safety risks are involved in proceeding, yet significant financial costs and inconvenience are involved in re-routing and re-scheduling. Ultimately, the improvement of monitoring systems by the VAAC will assist airlines with a high safety priority to make decisions of this nature on a more factual basis.

However, whether the significance of this type of incident, given the infrequency of its occurrence in Australia, is considered substantial enough to warrant investment in such improvements will also be up for debate.