Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Silence of the Volcano

What I do know is that from the afternoon of Wednesday 14th April to last night it has never been so quiet where I live. Heathrow produces a permanent low-level lower-frequency noise - in the right conditions you can stand in Bushy Park and hear the sudden roar of engines going into reverse thrust on landing. It is never completely quiet in west London. Until the last few days. The loudest thing was bird-song. And those old men flying their gnat-noisy model planes in the local park on Sunday morning.

What I don't know is whether the bureaucrats made the "right" call, first in stopping the flights and then in the time they chose to let flights start again. What I do know is that not one of them said the right thing at the start, which would have been: "We're talking with Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce and the other major engine manufacturers about the conditions in which it would not be safe to fly at the usual daily frequencies through volcanic ash. 'Unsafe' here is defined as meaning that damage would be caused to the engines that would with reasonable probability lead to loss of thrust from which a pilot could not recover. We should remember that aircraft have lost thrust from all four engines in similar circumstances and their pilots have recovered control and flown safely afterwards. If the airlines wish to continue to fly, that is their decision, and if passengers wish to board, that is also their decision. Any aircraft which does fly though the cloud must have a thorough inspection of its engines afterwards. The usual liabilities and responsibilities remain in place, and we are advising insurance companies that this is not an act of god or natural disaster in the terms of their agreements. It is exactly what people buy insurance against."

Sadly we don't live in a world where we treat people like adults, who make their own decisions about the risks they take. So the usual "precautionary principle" crowd crawled out of their cotton-wool lined Volvos and muttered about "passengers' safety being paramount." There was even an idiot who said that any amount of ash was a potential hazard. Which would mean that no aircraft would fly ever, as some ash from every eruption will remain in the atmosphere, just as Ceaser's last breath is shared by us all and for the same reason.

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