10 years since the ash cloud crisis The inside story

As we sit here in 2020 with empty skies above us and the COVID-19 pandemic stretching round the world, it is strangely coincidental that exactly a decade ago we faced a similarly unprecedented event which also cleared our skies.

This week marks 10 years since ash from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull grounded flights across huge parts of northern Europe.

From 14-20 April 2010, the eruption of E16 – the alternative to the volcano’s unpronounceable name – created enormous disruption. With aircraft unable to fly through ash that was rich in particles of glass that could damage engines, millions of passengers were left stranded around the world.

It remains one of the more remarkable episodes in the recent history of UK aviation and thrust NATS into the public consciousness in a way it wasn’t used to. Now, a decade later, we’ve gone back to talk to two of the key people involved during that week to get the inside story.

Dr David Harrison was NATS’ Safety Director at the time: “I remember it didn’t make me universally popular! I had hundreds of emails from passengers angry at being stranded around the world. People who had honeymoons cancelled, trips of a lifetime lost. It was a very tough time, but the fact was it all came down to safety and the rules as they existed at the time.”

David is now retired, but in April 2010 had just taken over the safety brief having led the relocation of the Manchester control centre to Prestwick in Ayrshire. Only two weeks in the new job, he clearly recalls the moment news of an eruption began to break.

It was mid-afternoon, and we had calls from both Swanwick and Prestwick centres with reports of a major ash cloud eruption that was heading towards the UK.

The NATS leadership team dropped everything to work out what it all meant. “None of us had dealt with anything like this before, so the first thing we did was look to see if we had an existing procedure for volcanic ash and to our surprise, we did! NATS can sometimes be a little over bureaucratic, but at that moment I think we were all glad of it.”

It quickly became clear that the scope and scale of the impact would depend on the direction the cloud was going to take and its composition. “There was some precedent, where a BA flight lost its engines near Jakarta in the 1980s after flying through ash, but nothing on this scale.”

No airspace restrictions were initially introduced, but the team watched as the ash crept closer and closer to the UK. David remembers the unusually consistent weather conditions at the time.

You might expect the wind direction to change every few days, but it was a perfect storm: a volcano sitting directly under the Jet Stream with a very consistent south easterly wind forecast for over a week and heading straight for us.

David drove the short distance from NATS’ head office to Swanwick where he ended up staying for the best part of the next 24 hours. With the first wave of transatlantic traffic leaving North America and ash positioned ominously in its path they were approaching decision time; wait and hope or begin to effectively close down access to parts of the airspace.

Pictured: A composite map showing the position of the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud that closed European air space in different days.

“We started with the northernmost Atlantic tracks, but it kept coming further and further south. By 2am we simply couldn’t accommodate the volume of traffic that was coming over on the few tracks that were still available, so we had to turn them back and effectively close the North Atlantic.”

NATS then activated ATICCC – its Air Traffic Incident Communications Coordination Cell – to brief the airlines.

I remember it was nothing like the set-up NATS has now. We wanted to do a conference call with all the airlines and found there were so many people dialled in we couldn’t get on to our own call!

Technical issues overcome, the team went about explaining the decision that had been taken to turn the traffic back. “At this stage there was widespread support from the airlines for the decision but the question that was niggling me was ‘under what criteria could the restrictions be lifted’? The truth was we didn’t know.”

What’s more David wasn’t even sure they’d definitely made the right decision. Had they overreached? “There was a chance that the decision a small group of us had made that night would be overruled by the CAA or DfT the following day. The judgement we made was that it was better to end up looking very silly and for me to get the sack than to take the risk. It was a very long night.”

That long night became a long week, as not only was that late-night decision not overturned, it was extended to cover the entire UK as the cloud enveloped huge swathes of northern Europe.

Under the guidance that existed at the time, aircraft could not fly through ash, so NATS had to stop accepting flight plans. Our airspace wasn’t ever actually ‘closed’ but it was effectively the same thing.

Things then settled into a strange routine, with NATS working with the UK Met Office to publish six hourly ash forecasts followed by calls with airlines and airports, and a constant round of media interviews over days and weeks. NATS people appeared on TV screens from New Zealand to the US. The new Chief Executive, Richard Deakin, who had only taken up his post on April 1, found himself doing his first NATS interview live on the BBC’s Newsnight.

But as time went on, increasing amounts of pressure were being exerted by the airlines, which were losing huge amounts of money, not to mention the predicament of millions of passengers stranded around the world.

Paul Haskins was Head of Safety at Swanwick: “There came a point when some of the airlines questioned the existing science of what were ‘acceptable’ levels of ash cloud for modern aircraft to fly in. The rules stated no flying, but they had been written many years previously and modern aircraft technology had moved on significantly in the intervening period.”

We didn’t really know what was going to happen with regards to our UK regulator, the CAA and the European safety agency EASA. Were they going to change the rules? These regulators were allowing a few limited test flights – aircraft flown in areas of ash cloud without passengers and then inspected for engine damage after landing.

Later that evening, 19 April, NATS was told that there were commercial long haul flights getting airborne, inbound London.

Paul continues: “With flights on the way we needed a plan. It usually takes months to draft and approve new operational procedures, but that night we were asked by the regulator to draft new procedures for flights in areas of volcanic ash, safety check those procedures, brief the controllers and implement them in time for those flights already airborne. We did it all inside three hours.

“Controllers were issued with verbatim, legally approved instructions to read out over the radio, informing pilots of the airspace status and asking that they state their intentions. We had the legal team sat alongside the teams who were writing the new procedures, to ensure we were compliant with UK Government policy and legislation.”

At 4am on 20 April, the CAA lifted the restrictions and controllers were able to guide the flights safely in to land using the procedures created only hours earlier.

Paul adds: “Our responsibility is to apply the rules as they’re set and to keep the airspace safe, so that’s what we did. We provided a safe service to our customers and supported the CAA in writing new rules and then writing the supporting procedures for flights in volcanic ash. All the planes landed safely.”

Pictured: The estimated ash cloud.

New guidance was immediately issued that allowed airlines to fly but only if they could inspect their engines after each flight. The 24/7 shift system in ATICCC continued for weeks even as traffic levels slowly began to rise, with continuing eruptions throughout the summer and into the autumn.

By the time a year later, when another Icelandic volcano, Grimsvotn, erupted, new procedures had been introduced by the CAA which made it permissible for aircraft to fly through an ashcloud as long as the airline had a safety case in place. Far fewer flights were halted as a result.

Looking back 10 years later David sees it as the most challenging time of his career: “We had a new leadership team in place, a brand-new CEO and huge amounts of international scrutiny. At one point I barely slept in 72 hours, but as usual, a crisis brought out the best in people.

“We didn’t get everything right, but I hope people understood the reasons why decisions were taken, and in the end I think we emerged with our reputation enhanced, although I never did manage to pronounce the volcano’s name!”

And are there any parallels with what we’re seeing today with the coronavirus shutdown? “It was a little like a microcosm of what we’re now seeing, but at least with the ash cloud we felt we had some level of control and could forecast how the ash cloud was moving. Today it’s out of anyone’s hands.”

Paul agrees: “The volcanic ash guidance has since been revised so we shouldn’t ever see a return to what happened 10 years ago, but even then, we could see and understand the science, read the forecasts. Today is a much more unknown situation.”

Find out more about the history of air traffic control: