The Met Office has come in for stinging criticism after it emerged three separate aircraft capable of testing volcanic ash clouds have all been unavailable this week.
The absence of the aircraft enraged airlines who voiced their disbelief that no money was put aside to procure a substitute aircraft capable of carrying vital testing equipment.
While other measurements can be taken from the ground and using radar, experts questioned whether they would be as accurate and useful as those provided by an aircraft flying through the cloud.
One aircraft, a BAe 146, which the Met Office and the Natural Environment Research Council lease, is about to fly to the Sahara on a long-arranged research project. The same plane was unavailable for nearly a week during last year’s volcanic ash crisis, the Daily Telegraph reported.
A new Cessna 421, which is being made available for the Met Office, will not be ready until late next month. The third, a Dornier 228, which was used last year to carry out a rudimentary inspection of the ash, was damaged by the exercise and is now out of commission.
Transport secretary Philip Hammond said an Irish inspection aircraft could be pressed into service today. IATA director general and chief executive Giovanni Bisignani voiced his anger in a letter to Hammond.
“It is astonishing and unacceptable that Her Majesty’s government cashes £3.5 billion a year in Air Passenger Duty but is incapable of using a small portion of that revenue to purchase another Cessna to use as a backup aircraft. I ask please that you ensure that all possible efforts are made to get the existing aircraft operational in the shortest possible time.”
Bisignani added that passengers were being hit by “the patchwork of inconsistent state decisions on airspace management”. The Department for Transport attempted to play down the importance of the inspection aircraft.
“The UK is taking detailed readings to monitor the ash cloud from a number of different instruments including radar, improved satellite data and weather balloons. Test aircraft only provide a snapshot in a localised area, whilst the Met Office model looks at the bigger picture, and the accuracy of this model is considered to be high,” a spokemsman said.
“However, as part of our ongoing efforts to reduce the impact of the ash cloud, we are looking to make a specialised test aircraft in the future."
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