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The story's out

Posted by Richard Sunday, April 25, 2010

While the girls and boys have been playing their games, others have been doing some serious work, charting the debacle of the closure of UK and European airspace for six days, in response to the Eyafjallajokull volcano.

As far as I am aware, there will be three newspapers today covering the events which led to the debacle (there may be more) but first out of the trap is Booker. He frames the story perfectly, pointing out that the closure of our airspace "casts a highly disturbing light on the way we are governed."

Before going any further, it is necessary to emphasise this point. The bottom line here is governance. Whatever the technical issues, the fact – and I do say fact – that British airspace was needlessly closed, at great cost and causing great distress, was down to a failure of government. This is the stuff of real politics, affecting real people and costing real money.

That said, such are the complexities of the events – those during the crisis and the years preceding it – that there is scope for emphasising different aspects of them, Booker choose to focus on the "striking parallels" with the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001.

Both episodes, he writes, 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 a drama into a crisis was the central flaw in the international system for responding to such incidents, whereby 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.

But, writes Booker, 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."

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 aircraft left in Europe specially equipped to do it.

Booker thus picks up on the point made earlier on this blog, whence he notes the similarity with 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, Booker concluded, 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.

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