For the past fortnight, Captain Uwe Post has been flying in circles in the congenial surroundings of north-eastern Sicily. The German pilot is working for an Anglo-Norwegian project that aims to allow passenger aircraft to fly safely during and after volcanic eruptions.
Last year, the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland shut down the skies over Europe for days, wrecking the travel plans of seven million passengers and costing airlines more than £1bn. This year, another Icelandic volcano, Grimsvotn, caused the cancellation of hundreds more flights.
To minimise future disruption, the budget airline easyJet and the Norwegian Institute for Air Research have devised a system allowing pilots to identify – and avoid – clouds of volcanic ash.
Dr Fred Prata, a senior scientist at the institute, designed an infrared device that can interpret the size and concentration of particles to give flight crews advance warning of potentially dangerous ash clouds from a distance of 60 miles.
It is known as the Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector – or Avoid.
Ian Davies, the head of engineering for easyJet, has such confidence in the technology that he has vowed to avoid any more cancellations. "Next time, I want it to be zero," he said.
But first the device must be tested on a commercial aircraft and certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency. If approval is granted, easyJet hopes to deploy the system on some aircraft from next summer. The airline, which is sharing its findings with other carriers, is understood to have spent up to £1m developing the system.
That figure will increase sharply if it is installed across its fleet of 204 aircraft. But Mr Davies said: "We will not be putting ticket prices up. We are seeking to limit our losses."