June 4, 2010

Easyjet Unveils System To Help Against Ash Clouds

Low-cost airline Easyjet has unveiled a system that it says will allow airlines to safely fly around ash clouds.

The system involves infrared technology that allows pilots to see the damaging particles up to 62 miles ahead.

The theory is that a pilot can then change course and continue to fly safely.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which is the body that decides whether it is safe to fly through ash in U.K. airspace, has supported the theory.

The CAA told BBC News that it was happy an airline appeared to have found a technical solution.  It also said that although it was not endorsing the product, it would do what it could to help certification.

Many air passengers faced airline delays earlier this year due to the Icelandic volcanic ash problem. 

The CAA faced criticism from some airlines that argued the body had been overly cautious.

Easyjet chief executive Andy Harrison told BBC "This pioneering technology is the silver bullet that will make large-scale ash disruption history."

Some scientists are skeptical about the new technology.

Colin Brown, director of engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London, told The Associated Press (AP) that while experts welcomed efforts to gather data, the new technology "should not be seen as a silver bullet that will allow unlimited flying."

"It is not the pilot who directs the plane but the air traffic control staff, and thus evasive action may well be slower and less effective in order to maintain that control," he said.

The new system, dubbed the Airbone Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector (Avoid), will be tested by Airbus on behalf of Easyjet within the next couple of months.

Fred Prata, the scientist behind the technology, has been developing the device for about 20 years, carrying out tests near erupting volcanoes.

Easyjet says it is happy for rivals to share its knowledge.  The company is spending $1.47 million on the system.

Harrison told BBC "What we don't want to do is to gain a commercial advantage over other airlines so we can fly and they can't. We are not going to exclude people from this technology."

He said the hardest part would be to get the approval from European authorities.

Easyjet said the volcanic ash distribution cost $109 million.

Its passenger figures showed last month that 215,000 of its own passengers had their travel plans disrupted because of volcanic ash and 1,600 flights were cancelled.

Image Courtesy Adrian Pingstone


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