Leading article: Learning the right lessons

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The Independent Online

The suddenness with which the civil aviation authorities lifted the ban on aircraft flying through the cloud of volcanic ash which has been moving above these islands for the past week has raised concerns that the ban was too heavy-handed in its extent and degree. It is important that the authorities now make public the scientific considerations which led to the ban, and its lifting, but those Conservative politicians who are seeking to turn the matter into an election issue should demonstrate greater political maturity.

This is an area of significant scientific uncertainty and it would have been wrong and foolhardy of the government to have done anything other than put passenger safety as the overwhelming concern here. Airlines have inevitably been frustrated at the ban which has cost them around $1.7bn. But commercial interests cannot weigh against public safety. In air travel mistakes cost lives in the most dramatic way.

The brinkmanship of British Airways boss Willie Walsh, who sent 26 long-haul flights towards British airports on Monday demanding they be allowed to land, was irresponsible. The aircraft would, and should, have been turned away had not their arrival coincided with a revised estimate from the aircraft manufacturers of how much volcanic ash a jet engine can safely absorb. Vast clouds of ash from volcanoes are events so rare that manufacturers have not routinely tested engines for this. Such evidence as exists comes only from incidents where aircraft have accidentally been exposed to ash. And the Met Office has too few sites around the country with the laser equipment to provide 3D maps of ash clouds with any precision, which is why scientists have had to rely on cruder satellite technology and computer extrapolations to detect this swift-moving and unpredictable plume.

More work needs to be done now on finding cost-effective ways of detection. In the meantime it is welcome that Europe's aviation authorities have now agreed a common standard for acceptable ash density, and one which suggests that they will need to be less cautious in the future. But this was a perfect storm of not just a volcanic explosion but one beneath a glacier which caused magma to explode on contact with ice – and which was then borne across Europe by winds which are running in the opposite direction to the seasonal norm. But politicians who now call for an "inquiry" are succumbing to election hyperbole. All that is needed is for the normal process of scientific review to take place, swiftly, and for the results to be made public.

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