The sky’s the limit for risk-aversion

It’s not the volcanic eruption in Iceland that has grounded flights in northern Europe, but an obsession with worst-case scenarios.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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This time would be different, we were told. There’s greater understanding of the risks, we were told. This volcano is spitting out a different kind of ash, we were told. Yet passengers in Scotland still spent yesterday stranded in airports as scores of flights were cancelled, with travellers in Germany facing similar delays today. The problem isn’t the ash in the sky, however, it is officialdom’s disaster-obsessed mindset.

Last Saturday evening, a volcano in south-east Iceland – Grímsvötn – began to erupt, pushing clouds of ash up to 12 kilometres into the air. Winds then blew this material south-east towards northern Europe. On Monday, the UK’s air regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), issued a statement reassuring travellers that ‘new arrangements put in place since last year’s volcanic ash cloud would ensure high levels of public safety while helping to limit any disruption in the event that volcanic ash reaches UK airspace this week’, though it added that ‘disruption to aviation couldn’t be ruled out’.

By the early hours of Tuesday morning, however, the ash plume had reached Scotland and flights began to be cancelled. During the day, British Airways, KLM, Easyjet, BMI and Ryanair among others had grounded flights in and out of Glasgow, Edinburgh and other Scottish airports. In the space of 24 hours, the situation had shifted. On Monday, the message was that this would not be like 2010, when ash from another Icelandic volcano caused large chunks of European airspace to be shut down for six days, leading to the cancellation of 100,000 flights and leaving 10million passengers stranded. By Tuesday, Scottish airspace was effectively in lockdown.

Of course, the scale of the disruption this time around has been smaller, but only because the geographical extent of the ash cloud has not been so great. As a result, the UK’s really busy airports like Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester have not been affected. But despite changed rules, which allow aircraft to fly through higher densities of ash than was allowed in 2010, the urge to shut down travel in the face of very minor risks has been overwhelming.

This led to a very public spat yesterday between Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary and the UK transport secretary, Philip Hammond. O’Leary claimed that Ryanair had made a test flight from Prestwick airport, south of Glasgow, through the so-called ‘red zone’ of ash and had found no problems. In addition, O’Leary demanded to know what had happened to rules that gave airlines much more freedom to decide when it was or was not safe to fly. Hammond replied that the Ryanair flight had simply not entered the ash-affected zone and, in any event, airlines did have the power to fly as long as they could successfully make a safety case to the authorities.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of that spat – and O’Leary’s case seemed to be backed up by British Airways boss Willie Walsh, whose airline also flew a test flight – it’s still clear that the authorities have taken a precautionary approach based on limited data. It is this underlying attitude that is of far greater significance than the presence, or not, of volcanic ash.

In Monday’s CAA statement, the organisation’s chief executive, Andrew Raines, declared that the CAA’s ‘number one priority is to ensure the safety of people both onboard aircraft and on the ground’. But there was never a problem of passenger safety. Though it is clear, as a recent research report indicated, that volcanic ash can damage aircraft engines, the few serious incidents that have occurred in the past 30 years have been at much higher concentrations of ash.

For example, a 2010 report for the Institute of Mechanical Engineers noted that the concentrations of ash during a near-catastropic incident involving a KLM Boeing 747 over Alaska in 1989 had been two grams per cubic metre. That is 500 times the level of four milligrams per cubic metre deemed to be the current safety cut-off. And yet, even in the 1989 incident, where the plane had flown close to a volcano, the plane’s engines restarted once it reached clear air. In fact, there has never been a crash caused by a plane flying through even the thickest volcanic ash cloud. There is a commercial risk that a plane’s engines could be damaged by ash, but passenger safety is certainly not an issue at the levels of ash seen over the UK both in 2010 and 2011.

But our society seems incapable of handling risk. There seems to be no answer to the suggestion that ‘you can never be too careful’. Instead, situations like the problem of volcanic ash seem to follow a familiar script where any uncertainty always provokes an extreme precautionary reaction. The result is enormous wasted time and expense, whether the situation is ‘mad cow’ disease in cattle in the Nineties, the so-called ‘millennium bug’ in 2000 or the SARS epidemic in 2003.

This risk-averse response is completely detached from any specific cause or set of events. As Frank Furedi explained in relation to last year’s ash-cloud problems: ‘We live in an era where problems of uncertainty and risk are continually amplified, and where our fearful imaginations can make these problems seem like existential threats. Consequently, unexpected natural events are rarely treated simply as unexpected natural events – instead they are swiftly dramatised and transformed into “threats to human survival”.’ Instead of ‘probablistic thinking’ – action based on a sober assessment of risk – we now have ‘possibilistic thinking’, where policies are continually based on the worst-case scenario.

For society to continue to function effectively, we need to get a grip on this counter-productive risk-aversion. The only thing bringing planes down right now is fear, not clouds of dust.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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