Minutes of the Volcano Watch group's annual meeting, held in New Zealand in 2007, note: "There is no definition of a safe concentration of ash for different aircraft ... In order to give a reliable and justifiable all-clear, once a plume has dispersed enough to be undetectable, clear limits of ash content are required from both the manufacturers and aviation licensing authorities." It acknowledged that establishing a safe lower limit was a "difficult and longstanding problem".(...)
A working paper, published by the group after the meeting, warned that airspace shutdowns were likely. It stated: "As remote sensing techniques improve, it is likely that the aggregate areas where ash is sensed or inferred will increase, possibly leading to over-warning for ash and cost-blowouts for airlines."
The following year's meeting examined problems with the monitoring of Iceland's volcanoes. It considered a proposal from the Iceland Meteorological Organisation for a second "Doppler weather radar in the eastern part of the country to assist in monitoring the volcanic eruption activity in that area".So the way I read this is that the airline industry has been warned repeatedly for years that large-scale airspace closure resulting from volcanism in Iceland was a real possibility, but the warning wasn't taken seriously enough to participate in developing robust safety guidelines for dealing with that potential. So I have plenty of sympathy for the stranded passengers, who are only now reaching their destinations or returning home. But I have reasonably close to none for multi-billionaire Richard Branson, who is quoted in the article as saying,
The minutes noted "such eruptions could have a major impact on aircraft operations over the NAT [north Atlantic] regions since Icelandic volcanoes were situated close to important air routes". However, the meeting concluded that the proposal required a scientific evaluation which it could not authorise.
The group's fifth meeting, held this year in Chile two weeks before the Icelandic eruption, invited the aircraft manufacturers to discuss what might constitute safe ash levels. However, the minutes reveal: "IATA informed the group about the strong efforts made in order to get representation from the industry at the workshop but unfortunately these efforts had not been successful."
"All the experts were telling us there was no danger," Branson said. "There were plenty of corridors through which the airlines could have flown which would have been quite safe."That's right, Sir Dick: As long as meat and metal aren't falling out of the sky, we can dodge and weave through those ash clouds. Then when they do start falling, we can just blame the government and regulators for not telling us to stop flying.
Branson added: "A blanket ban of the whole of Europe was not the right decision. The first few days the ash was up at 35,000ft, the planes could have flown below 35,000ft. There were plenty of ways of dealing with it. But actually planes have to put up with sandstorms in Africa; the engines are designed to put up with a lot more than existed."
Yeah, it turns out that the experts- the ones that Branson couldn't or wouldn't hear- have an appropriate response in light of this news: "Toldja."