Ash cloud: EU accused of over-reacting

2010-04-20 10:24

Brussels - Did Europe erupt into panic over the volcanic cloud threat? With flights restrictions set to be eased Tuesday, airlines and the media were asking if officials had over-reacted much as they appeared to have done with the swine flu outbreak.

The swift decisions to shut down airspace last Thursday was "motivated more by fear than science", said Jean-Dominique Giuliani, president of the Brussels-based Schuman Foundation, which studies European issues.

"Could the real culprit be the principle of precaution, this symbol of the fear which terrifies decision-makers?" he asked.

The closure of European airspace due to the dust clouds from an Icelandic volcano had ramifications far beyond Europe, vexing the media from London to Sydney.

"The health-and-safety Armageddon long expected has arrived," bemoaned Simon Jenkins, in the London Guardian.

"It was bad enough to have an idiot with a shoe bomb stirring equally idiot regulators to enforce billions of pounds of cost and inconvenience on air travellers in the cause of 'it might happen again'," he complained.

Out-of –proportion outrage

"Now we have a volcano and a bit of dust. It is another swine flu."

An editorial in The Australian daily echoed his message, decrying "this out-of-proportion outrage".

The measures by air authorities in Europe were "based on the assumption that the state is obliged to protect us from every imaginable act of nature and human malignancy", the paper wrote.

"A year ago politicians and public health agencies were panicking first and asking questions later over swine flu. As it turned out, it was (at least to date) the pandemic that never was."

The airlines, suffering massive losses from the shutdown of much of Europe's air space, have lobbied fiercely for a more flexible approach to the ash cloud menace, while stressing that passenger safety remains essential.

"Risk assessment should be able to help us reopen certain corridors, if not the entire airspace," said Giovanni Bisignani, head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), after airlines carried out test flights.

Test flight

"We are far enough into this crisis to express our dissatisfaction at how governments have managed the crisis," he told aviation reporters in Paris on Monday.

British Airways said that a test flight to assess the risk of volcanic ash to its planes had found no problems, showing that a blanket airspace closure was "unnecessary".

Some 40 other test flights carried out throughout Europe also showed no engine problems from volcanic particles, the European Commission said.

The airspace lockdown, the biggest since the 2001 9/11 attacks in the United States, also highlighted a lack of co-ordination in the response of European nations: there was no agreement on what level of volcanic pollution should warrant a flight ban.

European governments maintain their sovereignty over the issue.

However, the EU's Spanish presidency rejected the airlines' criticism.

"We are aware that they are going through a hard time," Spanish Transport Minister Jose Blanco told reporters after a video conference of transport ministers from across the European Union on Monday.

‘Safety is paramount’

"This situation is causing them important losses, but safety is paramount," he added.

And French Transport Minister Dominique Bussereau said: "I think that in the matter of air security.. you can never take too many precautions."

Under the headline, "The Phantom Menace", France's financial daily Les Echos, said the authorities might be open to criticism for having been slow to reopen the skies.

"But from there to calling into question the actual decision to totally close European airspace -- that is another step," it added.

And the regional daily L'Alsace argued: "Any accident today, would have meant civil aviation chiefs being accused of criminal negligence."