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UN To Work On Standards For Flights After Volcanic Eruptions


UNITED NATIONS -- The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN agency responsible for aviation safety, says it will lead efforts to establish travel safety standards for flights in the aftermath of volcanic eruptions.

The move comes a week after the eruption of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland led to the closure of much of Europe's airspace, causing major disruptions to international and local air travel.

A number of airports across the continent were reopening today as scientists and manufacturers downgraded the risk assessment of flying in areas of relatively low fallout.

Raymond Benjamin, the secretary-general of ICAO, announced at UN headquarters that the agency will convene a large group of experts representing commercial airlines, airline equipment and aircraft manufacturers, governments, and scientists to study proposals for the establishment of standards.

"We are going to convene a group of people: industry, manufacturers, IATA [International Air Transportation Association], governments, scientists to start working on the standards," Benjamin said.

Did Officials Overreact?

The announcement comes after criticism that authorities overreacted to the volcanic eruption.

The ICAO said that currently there are no standards on the concentration of ash that could affect aircraft engines.

That has led to confusion among national air-travel safety agencies, prompting them to close their airspace en masse when, critics say, that may not have been necessary.

The closure of European airspace caused havoc in the international air-travel industry, reverberating throughout the world and costing an estimated $250 million a day.

Finger-pointing has already begun. On its website, IATA published a press release titled "Re-Think Volcano Measures -- Governments Must Make Decisions On Facts, Not Theory." IATA has sharply criticized European governments for their lack of leadership in handling the airspace restrictions.

'A Matter Of Liability'

The head of IATA, Giovanni Bisignani, accused European governments of not assessing risk levels properly when they put blanket bans over such a wide area. They had offered "no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership," he said.

The ICAO, which is based in Montreal, has 190 members and maintains nine volcanic ash monitoring stations around the world.

Benjamin said that a major factor leading governments to impose mass flight restrictions was the issue of liability.

"If you ask manufacturers of engines, 'What is the concentration of ashes that your engine can sustain?' they will not answer you because it's a matter of liability," Benjamin said. "You see? At the end of the day, everyone is looking to liability. And that's why I am saying: no one will fly if there's a risk."

The ICAO did not set a timeline for developing the standards, but even after they are developed it is up to each national air-safety agency to adopt and follow them -- the standards are not envisioned to be binding.

Volcanic ash poses a danger to airplanes as it contains material that can melt inside jet engines and cause them to shut down.

In a dramatic encounter with a cloud of volcanic ash in June 1982 a British Airways Boeing 747 flying from Australia to Malaysia had its four engines shut down for a harrowing 15 minutes.

The plane lost significant altitude before it cleared the lower limit of the ash cloud and managed to restart its engines.