The closure of our airspace casts a highly disturbing light on the way we are governed, says Christopher Booker.
By Christopher Booker Published: 6:51PM BST 24 Apr 2010
Last week, for the second time in a decade, a major crisis erupted out of the blue that cast a highly disturbing light on the peculiarly contorted way in which we are now governed. The Icelandic volcano shambles had striking parallels with the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001.
Both episodes involved a massive system failure in a complex new structure of supranational governance which was being put to the test for the first time, Both were made much worse by over-reliance on an inadequate computer model, which ended up causing unnecessary chaos and misery for hundreds of thousands of people and costing not millions but billions of pounds.
What turned that shower of abrasive volcanic dust from a drama into a crisis was the central flaw in a new international system for responding to such incidents, which was put in place only last September. As everyone now recognises, the emptying of the skies which plunged Europe's airlines into chaos was a grotesque overreaction to the reality of the risks involved.
Within two days, the amount of ash over northern Europe was at barely one per cent of the official danger level. But the authorities were locked by international rules into a rigid bureaucratic system, based on a computer model, which gave them no alternative but to close down air traffic for days longer than was justified. The real flaw in the system was that it made no provision for testing that crude computer model against actual real-life data, which could have shown that the computer was vastly exaggerating the risk.
Responsibility for responding to the Icelandic eruption lay with a bewildering hierarchy of national and international authorities, starting at the top with a UN body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), working down through the European Commission and Eurocontrol (which is not part of the EU), to national agencies, such as our own Civil Aviation Authority, the National Air Traffic Service and, last but not least, the UK Met Office, owners of the relevant computer model.
Under guidelines issued by the ICAO last September, as soon as the Met Office's computer simulation of air flows around Europe indicates that a particular wind-borne dust cloud might theoretically be a danger, it automatically triggers an exclusion zone for air traffic. What the computer cannot show is the density of the dust, and whether it thus poses a genuine hazard.
A properly designed system should have allowed for immediate sampling and monitoring of the ash cloud to see whether it was at the danger level. As a spokesman for the International Advisory Committee on Flight Safety put it, "military and transport aircraft should have been sent straight up to determine the nature of the ash cloud. The density and the make-up of the cloud is what matters, and that information has just not been available."
But somehow the need for this had been completely overlooked by all the international officials involved in devising the new system (which was endorsed on our behalf by the European Commission). Because no one had been made officially responsible for carrying out the relevant sampling, it then turned out that there were very few planes left in Europe specially equipped to do it (the only dedicated aircraft in Britain was sitting in a hangar being painted). It was thus left to the beleaguered airlines to carry out their own test flights, which they began to do last weekend, finding that the quantities of ash in the air were negligible.
With losses soaring towards £2 billion, the airlines, led by British Airways, acted to break the official blockade. BA's Willie Walsh told the authorities that he had 22 aircraft already in the sky, heading for Britain – and the serried ranks of officialdom buckled, rushing to explain that they had only been doing their jobs in acting by the rule book. It was, of course, that rule book which was at fault, because it gave exclusive authority to a computer model not up to the task.
This was reminiscent of what happened in 2001, when our Government tried to tackle the foot-and-mouth epidemic within a new straitjacket of EU directives. Instead of listening to those world experts who were urging it to contain the disease by vaccination, it handed over direction of the crisis to a computer modelling team with no experience of animal diseases, who came up with that truly disastrous policy of a "pre-emptive cull". The result was that millions of healthy animals were killed unnecessarily, the appalling damage inflicted on Britain's countryside was infinitely worse than it should have been, and the cost rose into billions.
It is especially ironic that a Met Office computer model was at the centre of this latest fiasco, and that, thanks to successive Government cuts over the years, it no longer has any aircraft capable of testing whether its model's data are reliable. Over the past 20 years, our Met Office has received some£250 million to allow its computer models to predict future climate change. If just a tiny fraction of that money had been spent on aircraft of the type that the Met Office used to have at its disposal to sample dust clouds, airlines and their customers might have been saved several times the sum the Met Office has frittered away on its obsession with global warming.