'Ash weather radar' unveiled
New technology that could minimise future disruption to planes from volcanic ash was unveiled today by budget airline easyJet.
The carrier will be the first airline to trial a new "weather radar for ash" system called AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector).
The system involves placing infrared technology onto an aircraft to supply images to both the pilots and an airline's flight control centre.
These images will enable pilots to see an ash cloud up to 62 miles (100 kilometres) ahead of the aircraft and at altitudes between 5,000ft and 50,000ft.
This will allow pilots to make adjustments to the plane's flight path to avoid any ash cloud.
Millions of passengers had their travel plans wrecked when airlines had to scrap thousands of flights in recent weeks due to the Icelandic volcanic ash problem.
AVOID had been created by Dr Fred Prata of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU)
The concept is very similar to weather radars which are standard on commercial airliners today.
On the ground, information from aircraft with AVOID technology would be used to build an accurate image of the volcanic ash cloud using real-time data.
This would open up large areas of airspace that would otherwise be closed during a volcanic eruption, which would benefit passengers by minimising disruption.
EasyJet chief executive Andy Harrison said: "This pioneering technology is the silver bullet that will make large-scale ash disruption history.
"The ash detector will enable our aircraft to see and avoid the ash cloud, just like airborne weather radars and weather maps make thunderstorms visible."
There was criticism from UK airlines of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) over its handling of the ash cloud crisis.
Today, CAA chief executive Andrew Haines said: "It is essential that the aviation community works together to develop solutions to minimise disruption, should ash return.
"The CAA welcomes the fact that airlines are considering innovations such as this and we will do all we can to facilitate them."
The first test flight is to be carried out by plane-making company Airbus on behalf of easyJet within two months, using an Airbus A340 test aircraft.
Subject to the results of these tests, easyJet intends to trial the technology on its own aircraft with a view to installing it on enough aircraft to minimise future disruption from ash.
EasyJet plans to spend about £1 million this year in developing and installing the system which it hopes to have in around a dozen aircraft by the end of the year.
Mr Harrison said: "What we don't want to do is to gain a commercial advantage over other airlines so we can fly and they can't.
"This is a huge leap forward and the best thing is to get this technology on hundreds of planes operated by a number of airlines."
He went on: "We are not going to exclude people from this technology. This is unusual for easyJet. We are not in this to make money. This is relatively simple low-cost technology.
"The most difficult thing for this will not be the money. it will be getting the European authorities to figure out what they are going to do with this technology."
Mr Harrison said the ash-cloud disruption had cost easyJet between £50 million and £75 million and there would have no mass cancellation of flights if the newly-introduced ash-cloud flying conditions been in place at the start of the crisis.
Defending the decisions to close sections of UK airspace at times during the height of the crisis, Mr Haines said the CAA could have "wet a finger and taken a punt with the weather" or sought proper solutions.
He went on: "There was no information from aircraft manufacturers about what was a safe level of ash.
"Until we could get a clear assessment, we were absolutely justified in taking the actions we took.
"Otherwise it would have been a case of keeping our fingers crossed and I don't think anyone would have thanked us for that."
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