British airline unveils ash cloud detector plan

4th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

British airline easyJet announced Friday what it called a ground-breaking device to detect ash clouds, a "silver bullet" against the sort of flight chaos recently sparked by an Icelandic volcano.

The budget carrier said it hopes that if tests go smoothly, other airlines may introduce the technology, which could detect ash clouds from up to 100 kilometres (65 miles) away.

The group would be the first airline in the world to test the gadget, called AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector), which works in a similar way to weather radars now used on planes, it said.

Test flights are expected to be carried out by European aircraft maker Airbus within two months. EasyJet hopes to have it installed on a dozen aircraft by the end of the year at a cost of around a million pounds (1.2 million euros, 1.5 million dollars).

"This pioneering technology is the silver bullet that will make large-scale ash disruption history," easyJet chief executive Andy Harrison said in a statement.

"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," he added.

The Civil Aviation Authority said it welcomed airlines' efforts to minimise ash cloud disruption.

"It is essential that the aviation community works together to develop solutions to minimise disruption, should ash return," said CAA chief executive Andrew Haines.

"The CAA welcomes the fact that airlines are considering innovations such as this and we will do all we can to facilitate them," he added.

The inventor of the system, Fred Prata of the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), also hailed the British airline's announcement.

"AVOID enhances the theory around volcanic ash clouds with live data," he said. "EasyJet is committed to bring our technology to life."

Ash clouds from an Icelandic volcano forced the closure of large parts of European airspace in April.

During Eyjafjoell's activity peak in the week after it began erupting, it caused the biggest aerial shutdown in Europe since World War II, affecting more than 100,000 flights and eight million passengers.

In late April, European countries drafted a temporary classification that established a red zone where ash density prevented flights, a grey zone where the risk was acceptable and a clear zone.

The European Commission has estimated airline and travel agency losses from the grounding of air traffic in April at up to 2.5 billion euros (three billion dollars).

Harrison said that, while being first with the technology, easyJet wanted other carriers to introduce it as well. "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."

"We are not going to exclude people from this technology. This is unusual for easyJet. We are not in this to make money."

© 2010 AFP

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